Do I really need to include an intro explaining what Harry Potter is about?
Well, instead I’d like to talk about my history with Harry Potter, since every English-speaker born after 1995 is bound to have one. For many people, Harry Potter was the book that got them into reading. For some reason, it wasn’t mine. My dad used to read passages to my brother and I, and I used to read it a bit for those summer reading competitions held by our local library, but that was about it.
But at the same time, Harry Potter was a huge part of my life. I watched all the movies on repeat, I played the computer games, I played with the Legos, trading cards, and potion set, and nearly every single one of my fantasies took place at Hogwarts.
I didn’t dedicate myself to reading the full series until middle-school, but didn’t make it too far. I read up until book 6 later in middle-school. I reread the series in high-school, where I made it to the middle of book seven (I know, what a place to stop reading…).
What I find interesting about my history with Harry Potter is that every time I read the series, it seemed to change. I had different opinions, enjoyed different parts, and noticed different things about it. Perhaps that will always happen with every book I reread, perhaps it will stop happening when I stop growing, or perhaps it’s a quirk of the series itself.
But what did I think of it this time, reading it just before my junior year of college?
Entertainment: 3 - 4/5 Intellect: 3 - 4/5 Overall: 6 - 8/10 +1 for originality/genre-breaking
I know, I’ve never given a half-star with my new rating system. In truth, the 3 star rating is for books 1 – 6, and the fourth star is for Deathly Hallows. I know you likely think this rating is unjust, but let me explain…
In all honesty, if this had been my first time ever experiencing Harry Potter — no books, movies, or computer games involved — I likely would have rated this at 5 stars. But the fact of the matter is that I know the plot of books 1 – 3 like the back of my hand. In past readings, I noticed that the only parts I really got addicted to were the sections that had been cut out from the movies and games: in other words, the parts that were new to me. This meant that I always hated the first book but read the sixth in a single day. The later books were thicker, and so the movies hadn’t included nearly as much content in the films. I also stopped playing the games at Goblet of Fire, so I couldn’t learn the plot from that, either.
Unsurprisingly, this time was no different. At the sixth book, I became mildly addicted. It wasn’t on my mind constantly, but I was staying up late reading, and I was foregoing videogames and other fun things in order to read it. This is why entertainment has a range of stars: it simply depended on which book I was reading. The earlier in the series, the less interesting it was, simply because I was more familiar with it. Is that a fair reason to dock a star at all, if I’m so confident that I would have enjoyed the series if it hadn’t been my first time reading? With these reviews, I don’t like to speculate about how things would have been. The value of a book is absolutely going to vary based on personal experience and timing, so all I can faithfully report is my reactions while actually reading the books.
So obviously, the plot has a lot to do with Harry Potter‘s appeal. One thing that I only started appreciating after this most recent reread was the masterful way that Rowling prevented the reader from guessing which small details would end up being important later. I remember back when I read a series called Gregor the Overlander, there was a part of the book that mentioned that the main character placed a soda can into his backpack. As soon as I read that, I knew that the soda can would be important later on. Sure enough, it was the soda can that saved their lives a chapter or two later. But in Harry Potter, the series is so chock full of casual mentions of silly little things in the wizarding world — the giant squid, transfiguring things into canaries, Peeves pulling pranks — that the reader hardly notices when she drops in hints that Hagrid’s chickens are being slaughtered, that a little first-year was waiting outside of the Room of Requirement, that someone tried to slip Harry a love potion, or that Harry and Ron are playing wizard’s chess.
But the biggest boosts to Harry Potter‘s entertainment value that came from being an adult while reading it were the tone of the writing and the emotional parts. I never realized that these books are fucking hilarious. The dry, sarcastic sense of humor went completely over my head as a kid, and only now am I able to appreciate it. As for the emotional parts — Dobby’s death in the seventh book, for instance — also hit me harder as an adult than they did as a kid. I’ve just gotten more emotional and empathetic as I’ve gotten older, so the solemn moments of hand-digging graves were much easier for me to connect to.
This one was hard to rate, mostly, again, because of the seventh book.
At first, it was difficult because of Dumbledore. Nothing in Harry Potter seemed to have anything to do with moral lessons, up until the end of each book when Dumbledore gave Harry little Q&As. He normally taught Harry lessons that should be common knowledge to adults like me, but are easy to forget. This made it tempting, but not entirely clear that I should, give the series 4 stars in intellect.
At the same time, I was almost going to give Harry Potter a 2 in intellect. This is partly because I still think the prophecy was completely pointless except as a plot for the sixth book, but mainly because of how it deals with the rights of non-human magical creatures (house elves, goblins, vampires, etc.). The house elves especially. When Hermione eventually begins her S.P.E.W. campaign, she’s portrayed as being completely neurotic. Additionally, it’s emphasized again and again that the house elves, apart from Dobby, don’t want to be freed, and serving masters is in their nature. I understand that this is J.K. Rowling’s world and she’s allowed to make up whatever she wants, but for some reason I don’t think having a class of slave laborers who love and live to serve despite incredibly cruel treatment is something that you want kids to think is theoretically plausible. Additionally, the goblin and vampire mistreatment are completely glossed over and often portrayed as jokes. It’s like reading a comedy novel taking place on the old American frontier and hearing casual jokes about the treatment of Native Americans, all the while Ron continues believing in Manifest Destiny…
But as you’ll notice, I did not give the series a 2 in intellect, and, once again, this is purely because of The Deathly Hallows. In this book, Harry and even Ron stop treating house elf rights as jokes, team up with goblins, and assess the consequences that perpetual mistreatment brings upon the Ministry of Magic when Voldemort promises them better rights.
And this is a common theme in the seventh book. I found the vast majority of the series to be too simplistic — the evil characters were ugly and always mean, the characters never really grew or changed — but every single part of that changed in the seventh book. Pettigrew hesitated for a moment when choking Harry, Dumbledore turned out to not be entirely perfect, Snape’s hatred of Harry turned out to be completely explainable, the Malfoys changed their behavior because they were worried about their son, Harry actually had to grow up and change as a person before he could gain the tools he needed to defeat Voldemort. The book even leaves you thinking about death and what makes life worth living, even if it’s temporary.
Should you read it? Subjectively, I would definitely recommend the series. Objectively, Harry Potter has become a cultural phenomenon equally (if not more) important to read than any piece of literature from English class. At the very least, I find it hard to imagine any adults not finding it hilarious and imaginative. At the most, it formed the foundation of an entire generation of young readers, both in the English speaking world and beyond. “The next Harry Potter” is what many writers aspire to create. And if I had to guess, J.K. Rowling has earned her place in the history books as one of the most influential writers of our century.
Lead image via Jason Cockcroft © 2007 Bloomsbury Publishing Plc