Tuesday, July 14, 2020

On the Coffee Table: J.K. Rowling

Title: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
Author: J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: Rowling, J.K., GrandPré ...
via Amazon
Let's begin with the elephant in the room: Rowling's recent unfortunate statements regarding transgenderism.  If you don't know about the controversy, I refer you to this thorough breakdown.  I want to get my own feelings out of the way off the bat:

First and most importantly, transgender women are women, transgender men are men and nonbinary identities are valid.

Second, the responses from other luminaries of the Potterverse were swift and eloquent.  Daniel Radcliffe wasted no time at all and I especially appreciate this statement: “To all the people who now feel that their experience of the books has been tarnished or diminished. I am deeply sorry for the pain these comments have caused you. I really hope that you don’t entirely lose what was valuable in these stories to you…. And in my opinion, nobody can touch that. It means to you what it means to you and I hope that these comments will not taint that too much.”

It can be difficult divorcing art from artist in a situation like this and the Rowling matter is far from the most challenging along those lines.  Want to talk about Miles Davis sometime?   Transcendent musical genius of the 20th century and also a well-known wife-beating monster.  My beloved Beatles?  John Lennon was not the blameless, peace-loving hippie you were lead to believe.  To his credit, at least, he owned up to his faults.  See also the bottomless well of sexism, racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia in classic world literature.  Artists have never been perfect.  That doesn't mean we're obligated to hate their work.

Finally, if we're going to grow as a society through our numerous cultural crises, people need to be allowed to make mistakes.  We gain nothing by shutting people out the instant they say something disagreeable.  It is brutally painful work but we have to be able to talk through these challenges.  I am choosing to believe that Ms. Rowling made a mistake.  Like the rest of us, she has a lot to learn and I hope she will.

And now back to the easier discussion...

The Harry Potter books are amazing.  My wife and I first read Sorcerer's Stone aloud to one another in our tiny SoHo apartment in the late '90s.  Along with the rest of the book-loving world, we eagerly anticipated each new release and devoured each treasured volume almost immediately.  Our daughter was a surprising hold out for years but then binged the entire series one summer.  We love the movies.  When we were in Edinburgh two summers ago, we dutifully hit all the Potter spots.  Yes, we're definitely fans.

In case you're wondering, I'm a Hufflepuff.  If you're not sure of you're house assignment, go here.  I have to admit, I prefer the color schemes for Ravenclaw and, especially, Slytherin.  But what can I do?  The Sorting Hat knows best.

I have long had in mind to re-read the series and here I go.  I am happy to say that the first book - and I believe this was at least my third time through - has lost absolutely none of the original magic for me.  I still get excited by a Quidditch match and I still giggle about the Weasley sweaters.  Yes, I read differently knowing what's going to happen but I am no less astonished by Rowling's gift for drawing us in to this rich, textured and welcoming world.  She has been criticized, even by me, for taking ideas from others.  Some have gone so far as to accuse her of plagiarism.  The criticism is absurd.  Every author you've admired - Tolkein, Lewis, Carroll, Dickens, Twain, Tolstoy, Shakespeare - built on the ideas of others.  Same for Beethoven, Michelangelo, Scorcese, Frank Lloyd Wright.  That's what an artistic tradition is.  Nothing comes from nowhere.  The genius lies in re-framing the old in a form digestible for the current and, if you're really good, future audience.  22 years in, Rowling is on the brink of enchanting a second generation with no sign of slowing down.

What am I hoping for in this re-reading adventure?  In some ways, it's not so different from my reasons for re-watching Star Trek or immersing myself in Marvel comic books.  I am in awe of the world building and seek to learn from it.  In particular, I would love to glean more about the "other two" houses, Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw.  So much of the Potter story centers around the Gryffindor-Slytherin rivalry that it's easy to forget about the others.  And just as I have grown to appreciate the elegance of the Kansas scenes in The Wizard of Oz, I now pay closer attention to Harry's life with the Dursleys.  For both stories, the contrast with the mundane is vital to the magic.

So, expect periodic Potter reviews.  I am already excited for Year 2.


  1. I've read the first few books multiple times and read a few to my kids. I was less... moved... by the final two books and have only read them once each. I doubt I will ever go back and re-read the series.

    1. The books certainly evolve as Harry gets older. It's almost as if each was targeted to the age that he was that year. I like that but I can see how some might not.

  2. Nice post and wise words. I've actually never read the series. I started the first book but never finished it. I've always wanted too, and perhaps, I still will one day. Right now I'm focused on other things. My husband loved the first three books and has chosen not to turn away from them despite all that has happened lately.

  3. My children grew up with these books and films, so they represent comfort to them, in spite of the author's foray into ignorance. A lot of the art I am drawn to is from problematic sources - Miles is one of them. Luckily we do not have to adopt the behaviour of any artist we admire. (Which means my readers don't have to go around trespassing into rivers, phew.)