Sunday, July 22, 2007

I feel so much better now, freer, now that I know I'm not alone...

...in wondering what the hell all the fuss is about Harry Potter.

I read the first book a few years ago. It was okay, I guess, but it certainly didn't have me running out to buy the rest. Last night, chatting amongst the crew here at Oleg's, I brought this up. One of the guests remarked that he'd had to read the first three books when he was in high school, "back in the day."

"If you were reading Harry Potter books in high school," I replied, "it was not 'back in the day'."

"Well, we had the choice of reading them, or re-reading How To Kill A Mockingbird."

I stood there stunned and blinking, as politely as I could, and very carefully did not say "I weep for the future of America."

The great excuse for the existence of the series is that "They get kids to read books." This is weak tea to someone whose unabridged paperback copy of Kipling's The Jungle Book was held together with a rubber band before she was in second grade; I mean, comic books get kids to read, too, but nobody's holding up The Uncanny X-Men as a classic of Western Literature.

Or if they are, I don't want to know about it. Please.

18 comments:

Chuck@PodunkOutpost said...


The great excuse for the existence of the series is that "They get kids to read books." This is weak tea to someone whose unabridged paperback copy of Kipling's The Jungle Book was held together with a rubber band before she was in second grade...


I am betting that you didn't have TV as a babysitter and constant companion, and home computers wouldn't become ubiquitous for 5 to 10 years after you graduated high school.

Btw, in what part of Atlanta did you grow up?

Anonymous said...

A lot folks in public education don't espect children to read very well. Some do make the effort but I rememeber several teachers who didn't put much effort into it.

I made it a point to encourge my children to read and I'm happy to say that they turned out to be very profolic readers.

Tokarev

Don Gwinn said...

Don't take this the wrong way, but I hate you now.

A LOT.

You're probably a Slytherin or something.

kaylee said...

I dunno... I think I might have picked Potter over "To Kill a Mockingbird" to. At least it ain't Madam Bovary. *shudder*

Not to say reading shouldn't be more challenging than HP, but the whole mindset some schoolfolk have that a book's gotta be all depressing and full of soul-ickyness to be worth reading is just... bleck.

Alex said...

I don't much care for Harry either. The first movie made me want to slit my writsts.

The best thing I can say about Harry Potter is that a Baptist preacher called him "from the very pits of Hell" in my presence. So as far as Baptists are concerned, Harry is in the same category as wine, women and dance.

pax said...

Tam ~

The first book in the series is thin gruel indeed compared to the rest of the books. That's because Rowling designed the books to grow as Harry did, becoming more challenging and in-depth as they went along. So if you haven't read at least the majority of books in the series, you simply don't know whether the series as a whole is worthwhile or not. You only know that the first and most simplistic book didn't appeal to you.

Personally, I found the whole series very worthwhile. Nothing to do with "getting kids to read" (mine already do that, although the 17-year-old and the 11-year-old driving two hours down to the big city and then standing in line together for over 12 hours to buy a book hot off the presses was perhaps a bit unusual -- as is the 17-year-old's addiction to Muggle Net).

The Harry Potter books are absolutely full of intriguing little puzzles, some solved by the end of the book and some carried over into the next book(s). Why did Dumbledore lie about what he saw in the mirror? (Did he lie?) What made Tonks so unhappy that she couldn't change her hair color anymore? Who is RAB? How can Hermione get to all her classes on time? Where was Hagrid all those months?

Some of the puzzles have to do with human motivations, the kind of questions that kids' books very, very, very rarely address. And they aren't answered on the usual stupid-simplistic level that most kids' authors settle for, either.

When one character tells another, "I didn't tell you anything because I didn't want to cause you any more pain...", that's an answer to one puzzle. But you just know there's more to it than that -- and there is, but you'll have to wait until the next book comes along to find out what it was. The good characters have flaws, and the evil characters have realistic reasons for acting as they do. They don't just do bad stuff because they're, you know, bad. The reader can feel pity for even the most evil character in the books, even while knowing that the evil has to be fought anyway.

The characters do grow along the way, too. Not just the standard children's fare of "... and he learned not to be selfish ever again!" (or whatever the lecture-du-jour might be), but in the more complicated way that real life molds people, with one experience maybe helping you decide what to do about the next one and the lessons along the way being a bit ambiguous and maybe hard to figure out. Or maybe there's no lesson at all, it was just something that happened that you have to cope with.

Do you have any idea how rare this level of character development and complexity is in any currently-written book aimed at the youth market??

Hell, it's unusual enough for an adult book to do any of that.

Then there are the moral lessons. See that bit about character development above? The reader is asked to understand the bad guys' motivations, and to feel pity for them, but never ever to excuse their evil behavior. Feeling pity for these people doesn't mean letting evil get its way, and choosing to do good is never automatic and never easy. It's a choice, a real choice rather than a sham one.

The author managed to do this without resorting to preaching about it, allowing it to be simply the natural outgrowth of the entire story. When some preachiness does creep in, in the mouths of some of the characters, other characters express doubt, skepticism, and derision for simplistic thinking.

Oh, incidentally, as per usual with this kind of thing, the movies suck compared to the books.

Tam, give it another shot, and try to get past your annoyance at the thought of being just like everyone else if you end up liking it after all.

Dr. StrangeGun said...

There is a glimmer of hope... his choise was to REread To Kill A Mockingbird, which implies it had been read before.

Don Gwinn said...

Actually, Tam's friend said he was given the choice to read How To Kill a Mockingbird,

http://www.stanford.edu/~scodary/tkam.htm

which, while an unusually penetrating and complex work, differs in several key respects from Harper Lee's work. Lee would not have had the imagination to introduce the gigantic Pat Sajak face, for instance, nor the space pirate guns that shoot flaming sharks. Click the link, you won't be sorry.

My kids read Tolkien, by the way. They don't lack for challenging reading. They just enjoy Harry Potter very much.

I'll bet some grumpy old curmudgeon disapproved of a lot of the things you read as a child, Tam, whether they did it in your presence or not. A lot of stuffy professor types use the same "well, it's basically doggerel for children, isn't it?" excuse to dismiss Kipling, for one.

Larry said...

It depends. If they're reading the Latin or koine Greek editions I don't think there's too much room for complaint. Sadly, I doubt that's often the case. I won't read it in English, but I'm about to start on the Latin edition of the first book.

rickn8or said...

"The best thing I can say about Harry Potter is that a Baptist preacher called him "from the very pits of Hell" in my presence."

I wonder if it was the same guy that told me that reading Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land" would send me straight to Barbeque City. If not that one, surely "Job: A Comedy of Errors" surely did the deed.

Baptist preachers can't deal with competition of ideas very well, it seems.

Judy said...

Narnia. We're on our second set of books. I got hardback this time.

I started reading "chapter books" to my children at about 3 years of age. Classic literature - before the world could convince them that they needed to read HP. They do occasionally read such fodder, but they appreciate the classics as well.

I got my kids to actually read classics by stopping at a point of unbearable suspense - and leaving the book in the room at bedtime. It is always a joy to find the bookmark has advanced by a chapter or so at the next reading session.

Books on tape are wonderful too. One of my treasured finds was "Lord of the Flies" read and annotated by the author.

One of the greatest joys of homeschooling is having no recommended reading list - or at the very least, being able to pitch it for better fare.

BryanP said...

I rather enjoy the books myself. But yeah, some people do go a tad overboard. It's a halfway decent fantasy series, not soylent green.

The "it gets kids to read" line does work for me though. Think of them as a gateway drug. My gateway drug as a kid was a box full of old Doc Savage pulps. A six year old who sees a book with a guy holding a submachine gun and pointing it at a dinosaur has one reaction: COOL! Heinlein came later.

Now if you'll excuse me I still have another 200 pages to go before I finish the Potterdammerung.

phlegmfatale said...

What about when Willa Cather said "There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before?"

Ms. Cather left out the bits about rayguns and zombies.

I admit the Harry Potter books are a guilty pleasure for me, but in no way do I consider myself among the ranks of the rabidly obsessed. While it's not sophisticated รก la Kipling, I do think HP books have a value to those who enjoy reading them.

If we hold all new books to the high-water marks of the modern greats, then what is the point of anyone trying to write anything new as most will undoubtedly fall short?

This has always been a creative connundrum to me, particularly when I was studying classical music. I believe musical composition reached its absolute zenith in the forms of Beethoven and Mozart, so why bother writing new music - the best is already here? On further reflection, though, I realize how the modern fluff I run out and buy when a new groove gets its hooks in me adds to the breadth and width of my musical appreciation. I'd find life without Imogen Heap, Nina Simone and the Cramps to be cheap, indeed.

Gregg said...

I have read all but the last book, I enjoyed them, even though I was at first skeptical.

However, while Ms Rowling is an accomplished author, she is not the equivalent of Tolkein, or Morgan Llywellen or even arguably Heinlein or Lloyd Alexander. Admittedly, she is at least as good as Dumas and we shall have to see how she grows as an author if she so chooses. Since she has made an almost unfathomable amount of money from her works.

The most amazing thing is that she ahs kept them so accessible while exploring the issues she has explored along with the depth of character development. Which is, sadly, something that many authors are unable to do.

brbiswrite said...

To paraphrase some of Dick Francis' characters:

Two writers met at a gathering. Someone asked them why do you write? VERY POPULAR writer answered, "I write to entertain." WRITER OF MULTIPLE PRIZE-WINNING BOOKS responded, "I write to enlighten."

I think each has their place in school and in everyday reading. I had to read "Silas Marner" in 9th grade, for god's sake!

Enjoyed the post and especially all the non-personal comments.

Don Gwinn said...

If you can compare Heinlein to Rowling in a purely literary sense, you see something I don't.

I love to read Heinlein, but let's not deceive ourselves. All his characters speak with more or less the same voice, and most of them are poorly developed as characters--they simply stand in for ideas in Heinlein's lessons on life.

He's turned out some wonderful stuff, and I'm a little bit fanatical about him, but I don't kid myself. From a purely literary standpoint, Rowling has surpassed his best work with the Potter series.

Heinlein is too often what you'd get if someone taught Ayn Rand how to write a novel. His universe is fascinating and pretty complete, but then, Rowling's is arguably more complex and yet just as accessible.

Don Gwinn said...

Enjoyed the post and especially all the non-personal comments.

Tamara knows that when I say gently chiding little things (like "I HATE YOU NOW. A LOT.") I'm speaking out of love.

And hatred.

But mostly love.

DirtCrashr said...

It appears they also are a great excuse to get adults to read children's books - so she's managed to capture two markets; those with all the money, and the adults too.
I've only seen the movie(s) - on DVD at home.