Monday, July 23, 2007

Thanks JK Rowling (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows)

I was on page 564 of the Deathly Hallows when my seventeen year old daughter came home Sunday night from a date and demanded her book back. It started when she was eight and three of the Potter books were already in print. While I have several friends who like to insist that their own children started reading the books on their own at age four, I treasure the time my daughter would make me read the Potter books with her aloud. I think our record was ninety six pages in a single evening of my reading an average of ten pages to her one or two with both of us struggling to figure out how to pronounce words like “basilisk”, “accio”, “expelliramus”.

Just before book 4, we also discovered the pleasures of Jim Dale and the Potter Books on tape. For a couple years, wherever we drove we listened to the same man do some thirty five different voices per book until my wife and older daughter would insist that they couldn’t listen through another retelling of the virtues of Hippogriffs or the dangers of floo powder. At one point, my daughter made a custom of taking long baths while listening to the Potter Books on tape. For the most part, my reading aloud lost out to Jim Dale though it never got to the point where she would send him Father's Day cards.

It happened that the new books always got released on or around her birthday, July 20 so it became a custom every other birthday for us to wait for Amazon to deliver it on the day it came out. Two years ago, we were on vacation when Book 6 was supposed to show up, so we went to Walmart and got a second copy of the book and the CD version so we could read it right away and listen in the car. This year, I dropped my daughter off at the local independent bookseller at midnight on her birthday so she could attend the publication party there even though we both knew our copy was coming the mail tne next day. The line ran down the street.

In the nine years, we went to see a local version of Book 1 done as a play in which they literally left nothing out which meant that it ran for close to three hours. One of my friends ( we didn’t know them at the time) put on a Hogwarts Birthday for his eleven year old daughter with all the parents playing various adults in the book. For some reason his daughter wanted him to be Argus Filch. He wanted to be Dumbledore. My daughter has also seen all five movies. At their best, the movies only seem to augment the experience of the books rather than threaten to stand alone as great entertainment. It’s probably better that way.

The oddest extra-Potter experience for me happened last night. With my daughter in her bedroom with our copy of the Deathly Hallows, I decided to go online to look for a copy in those evil places Muggles set up on the Internet. I pulled down what I assumed to be scanned versions of the book. I figured Rowling is rich enough and I’d already done my part by purchasing a legal copy of her book. Perhaps it was some act of wizardry, but the two documents that purported to be scanned versions of the Deathly Hallows turned out to be very poorly written fan-fic exercises. Someone or someones had taken the time to write 624 pages of their own version of the Deathly Hallows. I opened the thing trying to find the equivalent page to where I left off in the real thing and kept going “I don’t remember reading this part”. Eventually I decided to try reading a couple pages straight through, I didn’t make it. Rowling my not be Dickens or even Tolkien, but this exercise made it clear that hardly anyone is J.K. Rowling.

While I’ve argued with others about the literary merits of Potter or even where it ranks compared to great Children’s literature, I’m not sure any of that matters. I’m certain that no series of books will ever play a larger role in the life of my family than Harry Potter did. I don’t know that there can be any greater compliment to an author of children’s books than to tell her that her characters essentially became members of our family from the time when my daughter and I stayed up past one in the morning reading aloud from Book 3 to yesterday when she read Book 7 between phone calls with her future college volleyball coach. The NCAA apparently has yet to sanction quidditch. Sadly, we gave up confusing Harry Potter with reality about five years ago and we no longer make wands, pretend that jelly beans came from Bertie Botts, nor do I place protection charms on her before she gets in a car with a boy.

One interesting thing for us was that Harry, Ron, and Hermione started out a few years older than my daughter but by the time they had their last adventure she was exactly the same age they were. I think the books stayed in her life also goes beyond the sheer force of habit or will to finish what she started. Clearly, Rowling’s sensibility also grows with the reader. While the Sorcerer’s Stone is largely a children’s book, the themes of the succeeding books grow progressively darker and older. For one, people begin to die starting in book 4 and Rowling begins making much more direct references to contemporary politics, particularly the War on Terror.

Actually, something the more scholarly types will have to look at is how the long run of the Potter Series ultimately dealt with the Post 9/11 world. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were both influenced by World War 2. Hogwarts clearly was influenced mid-series by the “War on Terror” to the point where Book 7 is replete with the Minstry of Magic and all Wizarding Media being infiltrated by the Death Eaters. Voldemort himself comes surprisingly close to being a roman a clef for some combination of Karl Rove/Dick Cheney. More significant, the characters really do go from being kids to teenagers as do the narrative demands of the books as they grew successively longer and more complicated. I wonder if the experience will be the same for a nine year old who discovers Potter in 2008 and reads through the series in say six months.

While many focused on the “magic” and “wizardry” in Potter (in the U.S. there were a number of complaints that the books endorsed witchcraft as opposed to Christianity, yeesh), that’s tended to obscure how deeply conservative Rowling really is as a writer and the way in which the vision of the Potter books wound up underscoring actual “family values” as opposed to what passes for political conservatism. Ultimately, Harry Potter does not tell the story of an ordinary boy’s transformation into a great and powerful wizard. Potter is really more the story of how an orphan who never directly knew love since he was a baby acquires family, friends, and connections to the world. Underneath that, the Potter saga traces the saga of three men Tom Riddle, Albus Dumbledore, and Severus Snape who find very different ways to work through the pains of childhood and adolescence. Rowling is really writing about the magic of ordinary life, something which possibly couldn’t be any clearer than in the duel between Molly Weasley, the archetypal mother of the Potter books, and Bellatrix Lestrange or in the way Harry deals with Remus Lupin, someone he once idolized, at one point mid-book.

My childhood was built around constant fear of nuclear holocaust. My daughter’s childhood has been haunted by fear of terrorists and ecological disaster. J.K. Rowling has given us the most magical gift in the Potter series, the reminder that the real magic comes from simple acts like exploring all the different ways to share a book and an imagined world with one’s children. Whether or not the world is doomed or civilization is headed for generations long decline, Rowling insists that certain basics of friendship and family continue to make a difference.

Even if the single mom on the dole who became the wealthiest woman in Britain wound up with a significant percentage of my family’s discretionary income from the last decade, I’m not complaining.



At 7/25/2007 05:35:00 PM, Blogger Dale said...

This post almost makes me wish I could read Chancelucky!

Hilarious: For the most part, my reading aloud lost out to Jim Dale though it never got to the point where she would send him Father's Day cards.

I don't recall reading with my parents but one of my few fond memories of school involve my teacher reading to us each day and I just loved it.

Thanks for a great post.

At 7/25/2007 05:52:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I think one reason I listen to books on tape more than read them on the page is that I really enjoyed being read to as a child. Actually my daughter really only liked having me read Harry Potter with her after a certain age.

fwiw, very few bees do read and I figure they don't have Harry Potter in Canada yet since they haven't translated it into whatever you speak up there.

At 7/29/2007 07:38:00 AM, Blogger Dale said...

I used to enjoy reading aloud when called upon in class. I'm still learning Canadian myself. I use Babelfish to translate my comments here.

At 7/30/2007 10:22:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Babelfish is great fun eh?


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