Exquisite Commencement Speeches by Famous Authors

A lot of the literary geniuses who penned the eNotes top one hundred literary works are dead—but a surprising number of them aren’t, and have thankfully stuck around long enough to see the invention of YouTube.

Check out the funny, profound, tragic, and sometimes surprising revelations offered by the authors you think you know in their commencement addresses.

Lois Lowry, The Giver

Lesley University, 2014

To be honest, I can’t think of a single reason why you would want to listen to advice or heed any so-called wisdom from somebody who has dropped out of college not once, but three separate times, three different universities. But I’m going to try nonetheless. And I’m going to do it by telling you a story, a story of hubris, betrayal, and despair… Season 2 Episode 7 of Game of Thrones. No, I made that up. Actually, this is a true story from my own childhood.

In 1947, Giver author Lois Lowry spent her entire allowance on an “echo box,” an orange cardboard container the size of a paperback book with a hole in it. The manufacturer claimed that one need only speak into the echo box, and when the button was depressed the speaker would hear her voice again, exactly as she had spoken. The device seemed magical to the ten-year-old who “never had a voice, never felt important, never felt heard.” Yet when she decided to display her impressive new voice to her family one night at dinner, she pressed the button only to find a needle had popped out and pricked her in the finger so deeply she bled.

Never invest all your money in a place that deals in deception. But more importantly, even though you will encounter some hideous and very painful failures during the process of learning how it works, your voice does have power. I’ve spent my entire life since 1947 learning that about my own voice. … I’ve learned that the words that I say which are thereafter contained in something … those words are powerful and important and I must choose them with care, sometimes even with reverence, and always with caution.

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter Series

Harvard, 2011

The first thing I would like to say is thank you. Not only has Harvard given me an extraordinary honor, but the weeks of fear and nausea I have endured at the thought of giving this commencement address have made me lose weight. … Now all I have to do is take deep breaths, squint at the red banners and convince myself that I am at the world’s largest Gryffindor reunion.

Rowling recalls the occasion of her own graduation and the struggle she experienced with parents who hoped she would use her education to escape poverty. Her studies in Classics didn’t exactly fulfill their expectations—and seven years after her graduation she “had failed on an epic scale … by any conventional measure.” Her marriage had fallen apart, she had no job, she was a single parent, and was “as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain without being homeless.”

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive.

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Caltech University, 2000


Read the full commencement speech transcript.

Now, right after graduation today, make a list of the people who don’t believe in you. And you have a few, don’t you? I had plenty of people who told me not to do what I was going to do. You make a list this afternoon of the people who don’t believe in you, and you call them tonight, and tell them to go to hell!

It’s not surprising to hear from the man who described in such vivid detail the ill-effects of the “parlor walls” that no one should ever have to watch the local television news again. “Don’t look at it ever. Because it tells you how bad you are.” More surprising are anecdotes of rollerskate adventures as a poor boy in Hollywood, comic strips torn up after the young author gave way to peer pressure, rejections by editors, and dire financial straits. Beneath his yearbook photo, a penniless unpublished Bradbury had them put “Headed for Literary Distinction”—and he was right.

For the next four or five years, move into the future. And don’t listen to any more damn fools after this. And that’s what I did.

John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

Butler University, 2013

…first I have to deliver terrible news, which is that you are all going to die.

But, as John Green points out, it’s not bad to recognize how temporary things are. And one thing we should recognize is that the hero’s journey isn’t one from weakness to strength—but rather one from strength to weakness. As you graduate, you start over and become the rookie, the nobody. It’s not easy but it is heroic. And it reminds us to be empathetic, to remember “that the lives and experiences of others are as complex and unpredictable as your own”—they, like you, “contain multitudes.”

I am going to hazard a guess that relatively few of us closed our eyes and thought of all the work and love that Selena Gomez or Justin Bieber put into making this moment possible for us. We may be taught that the people to admire and emulate are actors and musicians and sports heroes and professionally famous people, but when we look at the people who have helped us, the people who actually changed actual lives, relatively few of them are publicly celebrated. We do not think of the money they had, but of their generosity. We do not think of how beautiful or powerful they were, but how willing they were to sacrifice for us—so willing, at times, that we might not have even noticed that they were making sacrifices.

Toni Morrison, Beloved

Wellesley College, 2004

Regarding the future, I would have to rest my case on some bromide, like the future is yours for the taking. Or, that it’s whatever you make of it. But the fact is it is not yours for the taking. And it is not whatever you make of it. The future is also what other people make of it, how other people will participate in it and impinge on your experience of it.

The future, Ms. Morrison argues, is hardly a certain thing—not with the “burgeoning ménage à trois of political interests, corporate interests and military interests” that threaten life as we know it. Neither is the past safe; as we analyze and reanalyze what came before, not even events long gone offer stable footing. She says she can’t even talk about happiness; she hopes these aren’t, as most graduates are told, the best years of their lives, since they have so many to come. In the end she offers this:

The theme you choose may change or simply elude you, but being your own story means you can always choose the tone. It also means that you can invent the language to say who you are and what you mean. But then, I am a teller of stories and therefore an optimist, a believer in the ethical bend of the human heart, a believer in the mind’s disgust with fraud and its appetite for truth, a believer in the ferocity of beauty. So, from my point of view, which is that of a storyteller, I see your life as already artful, waiting, just waiting and ready for you to make it art.

Elie Wiesel, Night

Wagner College, 2012

When I came, some of you stopped me and said, “I read your book,” in singular. The naïf in me would have asked, “Which one?” But I am generous, and I didn’t. Oh, of course, I knew which one you meant: “Night.”

Political activist and holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel tells the students of Wagner College that the world will never learn if it has not already—if Auschwitz did not cure the world of racism, anti-semitism, and hatred, then he thinks it is unlikely that anything will. Yet “despair is never a solution” and “hatred is never an option.” All he can offer the graduating class is hope—an enormous gift.

Remember that hope is not a gift given from God to us; hope is a gift, an offering, that only we human beings can give to one another.