Reading List 2011 (7/87)

The weather’s been so gorgeous lately that I’d rather be outside than writing about books! But today is muggy, so here’s some recent reading:

  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J. K. Rowling
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J. K. Rowling
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J. K. Rowling
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J. K. Rowling
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J. K. Rowling
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, J. K. Rowling
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J. K. Rowling

I read these while my husband was having surgery, back at the beginning of May. They were absolutely perfect distractions. That may sound insulting on the surface, but I say it with great respect for the role of book-as-mood-regulator. Books change the way I think all the time; I have no problem admitting that they also often change the way I feel.

Picking the right distracting book is an art form all its own. Some key factors include length (I can be cranky about picking a new book when I’m already upset) and interest level (enough to keep me entertained, not so much that I can’t bear to put it down). I also tend to re-read when things get tough. For this, I didn’t have to pull out the really big guns* but it definitely called for something long, compelling and familiar.

When I re-read, I often experience the story differently. I’m a different person, with different ideas and priorities, reading the book in a different context. Plus, this was only my second time reading Harry Potter – though given the series’ prominence in popular culture, I felt like I was much more familiar with it than I actually was.

Here’s the big thing that didn’t change, upon re-reading: Hogwarts itself is a fantasy that hits just about every sweet spot I’ve got, for some very personal reasons. I didn’t get to go to a magic school, but I did go to a school that existed outside the bounds of ordinary life**. I studied obscure subjects (say, Talmud in the original Aramaic) that outsiders couldn’t understand. I spent ten to twelve hours a day behind the high wall that separated our school from the rest of the world. And, I was always warned, I must be terribly careful how I behaved in public, so that I would not inadvertently make people think worse of the Jewish people. For me, Hogwarts is a deeply familiar place – the school I almost-but-not-quite attended – and I can’t help but enjoy its rituals and routines, with or without a side helping of actual plot.

(Also, my college roommate wrote her thesis on magical schools in children’s literature, and how the portrayal of magical education reflects changes in mainstream educational theory. I can’t read Harry Potter without thinking of her!)

Here’s the big thing that did change: I rather liked the last three books of the series. The first time through the series, I was disappointed by how much of the action started taking place away from Hogwarts. I found the rest of the wizarding world to be quite thin, compared to the richness of Hogwarts itself (which, okay, is likely because I’m supplementing Hogwarts from my own memories and experiences in a way the rest of the wizarding world can’t match). I just wanted more Hogwarts stories! Screw the larger plot! But this time around, I knew it was coming, and I was able to enjoy it on its own terms. Rowling isn’t the best at action scenes – oh, lord, I could barely keep things straight in the big fights at the ends of books five and seven – but she does a lovely job of creating antagonists, with the exception of The Big V himself who couldn’t possibly live up to all his press.

Here’s the thing that is still on my mind: I wonder if part of the reason there’s so much Harry Potter fan-fiction is because Rowling sets up a very strong schema for how to write a Hogwarts story. There’s the sorting scene, the Quidditch scene, the Christmas scene, etcetera. Because the schema is strong, it helps writers make decisions about how to participate in the world of the fiction. I’d be curious to do some content analysis of Harry Potter fiction to see whether writers are taking advantage of this, and possibly even to see which parts of the schema are the stickiest.

Maybe next time I reread these books, I’ll have more free time than I do right now so I can get that study done!

* Dumas, Sayers, Dickens, His Dark Materials, Vanity Fair. And, okay, Piers Anthony. Please do not mock my secret shame.

** I had many wonderful experiences and some very difficult ones, but above all, my experiences were deeply different from the American mainstream.

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