Harry Potter and the Picky Reader

 I am a veracious reader and have worked at bookstores for exactly 12 years now. (on and off) This means that often I see new books the day they come out and get to read them before anyone has even begun to buzz about the book. This was the case with Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone in 1998. I saw it on the shelf and thought, yay, a new fantasy novel for kids. This was in the time when children's fantasy was rare and often overlooked. For most publishers, fantasy was a risk as J.K. Rowling will attest seeing as she was rejected many times based on the genre alone.

My initial thoughts were something like this: Oh, another boarding school book, this time with a fantasy twist. How kind of her to rip off all my favorite authors. Roald Dahl, J.R.R. Tolkein, Jill Murphy, Diane Wynn Jones, Terry Pratchett, T.H. White, and Lloyd Alexander just to name a few.

The writing was nothing to write home about. The plot predictable. The end? Really? Love is the reason why Voldermort couldn't touch him? Love?

As the book gained momentum, I was completely miffed by the fanatical attention the book was receiving. It wasn't terribly original and although not a bad read, wasn't the greatest book ever written. What was going on here? When the second book came out, I was shocked by how formulaic it was. Harry stays with his terrible Aunt and Uncle, meets up with friends, goes to school to solve a mystery (the mystery being whatever the title is), which he will in fact solve (because why are we reading), and Voldermort is thwarted, but not in a way that makes him gone for good. So naturally, after making it partway through the third book, I abandoned the series entirely. I barely have enough time to read the series I do like, formulaic or not, and I didn't feel that Harry Potter deserved much more of my time.

Fast forward to the present. I recently bought a new car with one of those newfangled CD players in it, which now allows me to listen to audio books. Perhaps because I don't feel like it is an extra amount of time suck since I am going to be in the car anyway, I thought that perhaps I would give Harry Potter another read...errr, listen.

It should now be pointed out that since I read the first book I have worked in bookstores for over a decade, obtained a Bachelor's degree in Publishing, worked as an intern at Children's book publisher, and then got an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adult. Perhaps you are thinking that all this education has made me cynical, like the film students you go to school and leave with an extreme dislike of all things Hollywood and a love for Wes Anderson films, but no. Instead this has allowed me to look at stories in a different way, to appreciate them for what they are, revel in their differences, and enjoy them when I can.

Harry Potter is interesting in the way of beginnings. Unlike most children's books, we begin in the head of Mr. Dursley, an adult character.  How odd, considering how little parental or adult characters are often non-existent or at the very least, on the sidelines, and yet Rowling chose to begin her book in his head. And it works. It is important that the reader understand the Dursleys before they ever get to meet Harry so that your sympathies already lie with the child based solely on their "muggleness".

Since this is the just the beginning of the book, I began to wonder what else I may have missed having read the book with no idea as to writing craft, plot development, characterization, theme, etc.

For example: In the movies the three children all have to solve a series of mysteries, using magic or whit, to get to the philosopher's stone. The three trials are so conveniently attuned to the three children's talents that it seems like Dumbledore wanted them to find it. However, in the book there were five trials and these had to do with the teachers various strengths and had nothing to do with the students. I had forgotten this part of the book and was pleased to see that things weren't as convenient as they were made to appear in the film.

That said, there are still things that bug me. The story is still not that original and agonizingly formulaic. Because this is a fantasy, we allow Harry to get away with a lot on a psychological level. I don't believe any child raised in such an abusive home would be nearly so well balanced as Harry is. And this one may be considered sacrilegious, but I don't think Harry is a very good wizard. There is this line where Hermione tells Harry, "Me? Books and cleverness? There are more important things: friendship and bravery. And Harry, just be careful." Yet it seems to me that Hermione has books, cleverness, friendship, and bravery, two of these things Harry is lacking which in my book makes him a bad student and since the only thing they are studying is how to be a wizard, perhaps he should take a cue from Hermione. At least, she is the only one I would trust to actually know the proper spells when we needed them.

All of this is to say, that I think I enjoyed Harry Potter more the second time around, but still have some of the same issues with it that I had when I read the book in 1998. I currently have the audio book of Chamber of Secrets and am hoping that I will be surprised by it as well and perhaps I too will fall in love with a series that captured the hearts of so many, although there may be no hope for this picky reader.


Cassie said...

Ah...Harry Potter. I think it's got a lot to recommend it from a child's perspective. And the formula can be comforting in a way. A lot of people read mystery novels or romances or fantasies because they get a sense of anticipation from knowing more or less what comes next. Chamber of Secrets was never my favorite as a young reader. I always like Prisoner of Azkaban the most. And I think you're absolutely right about Harry not being a very good wizard! Tons of fans were disappointed that he doesn't improve much in terms of magical power as the series progresses.

bregalad said...

I agree that the writing is less the best I've ever read, I think what sells the story best is the non-stellarness / easy to identify withness of the main character, vis his faults, he needs glasses, he's not an amazing student (except eventually in his favorite subject, and there he's probably only be average, if the teachers were consistently good) his only real talent is quidditch which isn't even something he has to work at, just show up for, (yet much of the time he gets into scrapes which keep him from playing)

I also never bothered to read them until I could do in-car audio.