A few years ago, when Harvard University chose Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling as its commencement speaker, the reaction among my academic friends was clearly defined: as black and white as a crossword grid. One was either PRO or ANTI. There were no fence sitters on this one.
The genteel squabbling over Harvard's choice flowed into public spaces around the Columbia University area, my neck of the woods. On a cool April morning much like this one, while sitting in The Hungarian Pastry Shop with the usual suspects--a croissant, coffee and the day's crossword--I overheard two professors debate the issue. The men were in their early 40s, about J.K. Rowling's age at the time:
Professor A: "J.K. Rowling, a commencement speaker? It's a joke. She's not a scholar!"
Professor B: "That's right, she isn't one of us--she writes books my students actually want to read."
Rowling's book sales are estimated at 375 million. Without knowing a thing about Professor A--his field of study, his appointments, his publications--I'm willing to bet that Rowling's book sales exceeded his own . . . by a margin of 375 million, give or take a few thousand. Sour grapes, perhaps?
I hope the skeptics of 2008 eventually listened to Rowling's address, which captivated so many of us via YouTube. She weaves her personal story with practical advice: the importance of dealing with failure; getting a classical education; honoring history; showing a tolerance for otherness; nurturing imagination.
I can think of no better puzzlemaking tools than the honest life lessons she laid out to that Harvard graduating class.
Rowling demonstrates a deep understanding for her entire audience, a careful empathy that explains why her books appeal to kids and adults alike. Puzzlemakers can appreciate this, as they are charged with a similarly-broad empathy; their audience spans four generations (ages 20 through 100+ . . . give or take a few years either way).
Ever the storyteller, Rowling had the older kids at "hello." This simple and brilliant warning to the graduates generated a roar of applause . . . from the parents: "There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you."
As Rowling finishes and steps off stage, one is eager to learn more about this remarkable woman. She's intelligent, humble and compassionate--the kind of person you'd want to invite to dinner, to be your child's godparent . . . and if you're a constructor--the person you wish solved your puzzles. A Dream Solver.
Normal people imagine their dream houses, dream kitchens or dream cars. I, however, imagine my dream solvers--the people who get it. In this dream, J.K. Rowling sits in an Edinburgh cafe, knocks back her third morning coffee, and solves one of my puzzles. An unreasonable imagination means trouble in most situations, except in the puzzle world, where it's most welcome.
As Graduation Week approaches here at Columbia, I'll revisit Rowling's commencement address. It is one of the finest speeches of its kind, and a profound inspiration to this puzzlemaker.