Rowling To Give Commencement Address

Unnamed photo
David I. Fulton-Howard

'Harry Potter' author J.K. Rowling enters a reception at Loeb House in June 2008 evening before the annual dinner for honorary degree candidates.

Searching for words to describe Harvard to its incoming students, University President Drew G. Faust called upon a familiar place this fall in an address to freshmen.

“Think of it,” she said of the College, “as the treasure room of hidden objects Harry discovers at Hogwarts—libraries, museums, centers of all kinds.”

Today, Hogwarts’ creator, J.K. Rowling, may offer a similar lesson about the world, but this time to the College’s outgoing students.

Selected by the Harvard Alumni Association to deliver the day’s Commencement address, the acclaimed author of the popular “Harry Potter” series will also receive an honorary degree from the University.

Comparing Rowling to yesterday’s Class Day speaker, Federal Reserve Chair Ben S. Bernanke ’75, Professor Maria Tatar, who teaches a course on childhood, said she thinks Rowling will deliver “a witty, inspiring talk that steers clear of the subprime crisis and gas prices but will still engage with tough, real-world issues.”

For many, Rowling may lack the gravitas of past years’ speakers, who include Microsoft founder Bill Gates, former United Nations leader Kofi Annan, and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

But it would be myopic to downplay Rowling’s “extraordinary” impact, Tatar said, even if it is one different from that of political or economic figures who typically speak at Commencement.

“Just because she’s not doing the nitty-gritty of the economy or politics doesn’t mean that she’s not bringing something to the table that’s very powerful,” the former dean for the humanities said.

At a Class of 2008 dinner two days ago, parents debated copyright issues as students nearby speculated about Rowling’s next project, Tatar said, adding that the writer has “cross-generational appeal.”

“Commencement should be a sort of family-friendly time to think about imagination as well as the economy,” she said.

A fiction writer will provide a perspective very different from someone like Bill Gates, said Carole Horne, general manager and a buyer at The Harvard Book Store. Such a perspective can be provocative and profound for those embarking on the next phase of their lives, Horne said.

Although she hopes Rowling decides to stop by, Horne said that having her in the Square is good enough.

Rowling is the fifth woman since 1950 to speak at Commencement. Previous writers to address the graduates include Ralph Ellison, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Lionel Trilling.

Since its first volume, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” was released in 1997, the seven-part series has sold more than 375 million copies. Translated into more than 64 languages, including Latin, the novels have spawned a crazed international following that has made Rowling—once a poor, single mother writing on napkins—the highest-earning novelist in history.

Rowling’s arrival comes at a time of gloom for the book industry at large, but during a moment of celebration for Harvard Square’s booksellers: the Harvard Coop, the Harvard Book Store, and the Globe Corner Bookstore all marked important anniversaries this year.

Rowling’s address will take place at 2:30 this afternoon in Tercentenary Theatre, rain or shine.

—Staff writer Esther I. Yi can be reached at estheryi@fas.harvard.edu.