21 December 2010


Reading Diary: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

A breeze ruffled the neat hedges of Privet Drive, which lay silent and tidy under the inky sky, the very last place you would expect astonishing things to happen. Harry Potter rolled over inside his blankets without waking up. One small hand closed on the letter beside him and he slept on, not knowing he was special, not knowing he was famous, not knowing he would be woken in a few hours' time by Mrs. Dursley's scream as she opened the front door to put out the milk bottles, not knowing that he would spend the next few weeks being prodded and pinched by his cousin Dudley. . . . He couldn't know that at this very moment, people meeting in secret across the country were holding up their glasses and saying in hushed voices: "To Harry Potter--the boy who lived!

And this is where it all began. Do we remember???

I have one friend who definitely does: she likes to brag that she started reading Harry Potter long before the books became best-sellers--and has a well-read (British English) original edition of this first novel in her bookcase to prove it.

A few years later, when the fifth installment was released, to worldwide mania, another friend decided she'd better figure out what this Potter phenomenon was all about and borrowed my (American English) copies of the first four books. I was flying out to uni in New Zealand at the time, so I told her she could keep them for the next two or three years. [Fast forward two years.] Upon my return, she gave back Books 2, 3 and 4 in pretty much the condition in which she got them (allowing for the usual yellowing of the paper). They had obviously gone unread all that time, while the first book, which she had presumably at least started, was nowhere to be seen. According to my friend, I had never lent it to her!!! It was as good as an omen: a few years later, she become an ex-friend.

Not just because she lost one of my books: that would be post hoc, ergo propter hoc and even I'm not that much of a bad friend book fiend. But I mention her because this pre-planned personal Potter-thon was delayed for several weeks while I waited for my favourite bookstore to find me a nice new copy of the sold-out Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone--one which was about three times more expensive than my first one, but never mind . . .

I was sorted into Ravenclaw a decade ago.
your House?

It seems insulting to describe any of the Harry Potter books as "Middle Grade"--although that is what they are. In the ten years it took for the whole series to be written, they have not only popularised the subgenre beyond the publishing world's wildest dreams, but have also transcended it completely. Every MG novel--Fantasy or otherwise--for the next twenty years or so (if not fifty!) will be held against their benchmark, and often found wanting. (And I'm not even thinking of the movies yet!) But this is just something we know now.

Not even J.K. Rowling herself could have dreamed all that in the late 1990s, when her first book hit the shelves and she had the modest hope that a few thousand school children would really enjoy it. Now, speaking of school children . . .

Compact, concise and self-contained, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is just what you'd expect a book in the English "school story" tradition to be. Rowling is still more fascinated by the idea of a wizarding school (Oh, the setting that is Hogwarts!) and indeed, a whole wizarding world (Oh, endless, endless settings!) than by the Good vs. Evil premise shadowing every whimsical episode around and during the Hogwarts school year. And why shouldn't she have been? If you think about it, Good vs. Evil had already been done to death; wizarding schools were still wonderfully unusual.

It was this episodic, school-centered format that first attracted me to the series. (I'm a sucker for boarding schools--and Hogwarts is arguably the best fictional boarding school of all time.) I liked the quirky teachers, the sprawling school grounds, the mysterious school building, the hint of hundreds of years of history, and of course, the expected mix of students.

Harry, Ron, Hermione, Draco, Neville: we've all seen their types before, haven't we? And we know as early as Madam Malkin's that Draco is going to be Harry's nemesis for the next seven years . . . as early as the Hogwarts Express that Ron is going to be his best friend for the rest of their lives . . . as early as Hermione's first interfering comment that she will end up as part of the gang (and perhaps somebody's girlfriend) . . . and as early as that first disastrous Potions class that Neville is actually a diamond in the rough. Indeed, I had thought that Neville would, in the end, turn the tight-knit group of young heroes into a nice, round foursome--but Rowling seemed to think his finest hour had come at the end of this novel.

In other words, we're talking about good "school story" form here. No more, no less. It wasn't until Rowling really started breaking out this box that her books started breaking best-seller records. I'll admit that I wasn't too crazy about that, at the time. "Good vs. Evil" on the scale she set for herself meant that even Hogwarts eventually had to show itself too small for the storytelling. But it was a twist I didn't much like. And after the fifth book, which seemed half Orwellian satire to me, I set the series aside for seven years.

(No howls of outrage, please. It's getting a fair shake now, isn't it?)

Image Source: a) Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling, b) Hogwarts Crest


Simcha said...

I've been meaning to reread the Harry Potter series because I never read the final book and I can't bring myself to read it now without refreshing my memory as to the rest of the story. But I'm also a bit apprehensive that it won't be as good as I remember it being, which is a problem I often have with rereads.

Salome Ellen said...

Ah, you remind me that I need to put the British-English versions on my wish list. (I do a little bit of back-translation in my head; "packet of crisps" is just so much more satisfying than "bag of chips"!) Our family are such addicts that we pre-ordered TWO copies of Azkaban and following, and then the kids fought over who got to read them first, based on who was the fastest reader AND least likely to drop spoilers.

My sister-in-law, who introduced us to them before the furor hit, actually got a speeding ticket driving home from a midnight release sale of Order of the Phoenix so she could get started.

Syrin said...

I was going to argue one of your points, but judging by what you said, you have not read 6 or 7 yet, correct? So I will not say a word, as spoiling anything in this series is a crime.

I've been re-reading the series myself, as when I went to go see Deathly Hallows Part 1, I realized I didn't really remember the book enough to compare accuracies. I read the final book so quickly that a lot of the little details got lost. I've also been re-watching the movies as I finish each book. So far, the re-read is holding up really well, and it's a lot of fun to see how she hints at future events in the story.

Enbrethiliel said...


Simcha: Ah, I know what you mean! I usually have good luck with rereads and so I encourage everyone else to revisit old favourites . . . but one old HP novel has already taken a hit now that I've seen it with more experienced eyes. =S

Perhaps you could reread them in the original British English, if you haven't read them that way already? Ellen is right that the language is so much more satisfying! It will guarantee something new to love, if nothing else. =)

Ellen: My favourite example is "pop his clogs"--which was "translated" into "kick the bucket." Sigh! Just not the same, is it? =P

Your family sounds marvelous! I wish we could all get together to discuss the books, as I know I'm going to be keen to do that as soon as I'm done with the series!

Syrin: Thank you so much for holding back on the spoilers!!! =D You're right that I haven't read beyond the fifth book, and although some of the bigger developments have managed to reach my ears anyway, I'm grateful for other Rowling fans who understand about letting everyone discover things for themselves. =)

I see you have a post about this book, too. Will you have one for each book as you go along? I'd be glad to follow your progress!

Syrin said...

Ever since I was spoiled on who dies in Order of the Phoenix, I've been extra careful about ruining even the smallest detail for anyone. :)

I will be doing a post for every book/movie. I haven't decided yet if I'll end up splitting up Deathly Hallows or not. I should have Chamber of Secrets done by next week, I'm about 3/4 of the way through the book. If it weren't for the holidays I'd probably be finished already.

Enbrethiliel said...


I've just finished the fifth book and it was as if I was reading it for the first time. (If you had asked me, before the reread, my clearest memory of the story, I would have mentioned the Aurors breaking Harry out of the Dursleys' home . . . which takes place in Chapter 3!)

So if what you wanted to argue was my point about Neville . . . well, I see what you mean! I'm so glad that Rowling is paying more attention to his character again, and I'd definitely like to read what else she has in store for his character. (His grandmother turns out to be pretty cool, too. I had thought she was a Slytherin-type, but oh, no!)

I also wish I had finished The Order of the Phoenix before writing about the House Elves in my "Top 5 Merry Minions". Kreacher really changed everything.

Syrin said...

It was Neville. Oh, I can't wait until you see what happens in the rest of the story! That chapter in the hospital in book 5 just tugs directly on my heart strings.. poor, sweet Neville.

Enbrethiliel said...


I've been wanting to know more about Neville's family history since I learned about his parents in The Goblet of Fire. Neville is kind of the "anti-Harry," isn't he? That bit about them having been born on the same day, but with Neville being ruled out early by Voldemort, intrigues me. My order of The Half-Blood Prince had better come soon!!!