Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Books Like Whoa: Rereading Harry Potter (Books 1-3) (Favorites Edition)

I have embarked on a massive Harry Potter reread as a restorative from a boarderline traumatic The Hunger Games series binge...

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
by J.K. Rowling

First Read: I tore through all three in 1999, in time for the release of The Goblet of Fire

Format: I wanted to try the Harry Potter audio experience, which is as wonderful as everyone says it is. Jim Dale is an excellent narrator, though I will always hear Alan Rickman as Snape. These were really fortuitously timed... I had received the first 2 books on audio for Christmas, and just when I was wrapping them up and thinking about ordering the next couple, Pottermore store launched! It is super easy to download the audio from there and you can download up to 8 times on you/your family's devices.

Thoughts: I am a re-reader. I know a lot of people find the idea of reading something you've already read before odd and unpleasurable, but half the reason I love to read is finding books that I will enjoy and reexperience for years to come. One of my favorite series of all time is, unoriginally, Harry Potter and it is something of a comfort blanket whenever I am feeling blue or if I'm just in a reading slump.

I don't know how much anyone cares about HP these days, but I can't help but want to talk about my new-to-me discoveries, so I hope you will indulge me.

That being said, here's a rundown of my overall impressions...
  • I don't mean to ruin these books for you. And I think it is a lot less noticeable when you are reading rather than listening. But J.K. Rowling is an adverb addict. Someone mentioned that to me in passing and now it's all I can hear. Everyone's dialog tags are riddled with unnecessary descriptors... people seem to be particularly fond of saying things "darkly."
  • It never occurred to me before, but all of these books are basically mystery plots. There is some unknown element, plot, or unpleasantness that Harry & the gang are trying to root out before Lord Voldemort or his cronies have a chance to succeed. I never read them this way the first few times around- I was more focused on the action/adventure component- but that clearly is the structure. With that in mind, it's been enjoyable to pick out the clues and appreciate the truly subtle way that Rowling inserts bits of important information
  • Each book has a "MacGuffin," albeit a more fleshed out one than, say, The Maltese Falcon. For Book 1, it's the safety of Philosopher's Stone. For Book 2, it's the location of the Chamber of Secrets. For Book 3, it's the location of Sirius Black. 
  • J.K. Rowling seems to have some kind of subconscious association between humor and weight - she seems to use an inordinate number of fat/thin descriptions for people of derision. 
  • Professor Dumbledore is kind of an ass. I never read him this way before, but he obviously thinks a lot of himself and his own opinion. He's also got a pretty intense god complex, the way he orchestrates so many of the situations... and what kind of adult sets a kid up to confront a loon with an evil spirit manifested on the back of said loon's head? I'm kind of glad to see this characterization played out consistently through the series, because that does inform the way the 7th book unfolds nicely, and I can see the set up for Dumbledore's hubris with Deathly Hallows much more clearly with hindsight. 
  • The authority figures end up being a little bit straw-manish. McGonagall is supposed to be all stern but she's constantly letting them off lightly. Same for all the parental figures, and Snape, who would gladly let them have it, is never allowed to really unleash his retribution upon them. I'm not sure if it's the "hey this is Harry Potter we're talking about!" syndrome that all the adults seem to have, but no wonder Harry and the gang become cocky scoff-laws. They never get in trouble for it!
  • These are funny books! I forget that usually, but these are some of the only books that consistently make me giggle. The descriptions, the situations, the dialogue - Rowling has her young adult audience's sensibility in mind and the humor is a welcome addition to young and old readers alike.
  • The first and second books have basically the same stakes and structure with only slightly different particulars. I know I mentioned that they all have similarities with their stakes (MacGuffin) and structures (mysteries), but the first two are too similar in the particulars. In the past, this had led me to believe that Chamber of Secrets was my least favorite of the series. However, upon rereading, I realize what I was responding to was a story that felt too similar to the first one without the "ooo, this is shiny and new" factor. In reality, the second one is significantly better (and now that I see how it prefigures the ultimate outcomes, I like it even more) than the first one. The problem is that she should have mixed up the particulars more, as she goes on to do in subsequent books. 
  • As I remembered, the 3rd book is the first of the series that plays better to a more mature audience. This, I assume, is meant to reflect the increasing maturity in her core readership, but it also makes it a better book that has a more interesting structure (the last 1/3 of the book is the progress and then rewind/replay of one montage) and more interesting ideas (how to do you respond to betrayal? what does it mean to keep your personal integrity in complicated moral situations?). I generally recommend that new adult readers start with Book 4, but rereading Prisoner of Azkaban has made me think that maybe 3 is as good a starting point. 
  • I flipping love boarding school novels. I eat them up like a carnivorous wildebeest. These hit those pleasure buttons so well. It makes me wish I could go back in time and be British and go to boarding school. Can anyone help me accomplish this?
  • Did I mention what a great narrator Jim Dale is? He is. For reals - a tip of the audio hat to you, sir.
  • Basically, these are frothy confections of delight for kids and a deeper, richer chocolate mousse for adults. There's a reason that young people love them and I thank God for what J.K. Rowling has done (and hopefully will continue to do) for getting young people reading. But beyond that, especially by the third book, Rowling is exploring themes that are not only universal, but universally interesting and important. This time around, what I am particularly drawn to is the persistence and necessity of hope, and the power those of us who have hope possess over those who want to crush it. 
And finally, as a little treat for those so inclined to biting humor, this pretty hilarious article about how to write the great American novel has a great little shout out to Miss Hermione Jean Granger.

What do you think about the Harry Potter series? Do you like to reread old favorites?

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