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
What's 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