Saturday, August 6, 2011

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone - memories, reevaluations, and musings

Last week, I began a great adventure.

I cracked open my beaten, old hardcover of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and began to reread the series that changed the way I look at storytelling. I've read the books many times before, but I haven't embarked on a full series reread for two or three years. I've decided to track my progression on this blog, writing about each of the books as I finish them - not so much reviews, but closer to a collection of memories, reevaluations, and musings. I considered doing this after watching the final film (which was virtually perfect with its sensitively adapted version of the complicated second half of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), but fellow blogger William Buhagiar had already done that with each of the films (you can read his great retrospective from the beginning here). I found that, after walking out of that theater, I was hungry to experience Harry Potter again. And what better way to do so than to reread the books?

When I received Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone as a gift, I picked it up, read the first chapter, and promptly put it down. "Not my thing," I'd decided. I was big into Goosebumps then, committing myself to only read books written by R. L. Stine (or authors clearly trying to cash in on the success of books, such as M. T. Coffin's Spinetinglers and Betsy Hanes' Bone Chillers) so a book that started out with a grumpy old man being pissed off about things seeming out of sort wasn't something to which I thought I could devote my precious reading time. Time passed, and I stopped reading with the frequency that I'd been. Goosebumps was over, I felt older, and I wanted to find a new story that would make me care again. That Harry Potter book was sitting around unread, and I'm not sure what made me pick it up again, but I did... and this time I pushed myself past the first chapter. I finished the whole book, deciding that I had been an idiot (or, as the Hogwarts kids might've said, a git; British slang was a new treasure to me) for not realizing the excellence that awaited me even sooner. The night I finished Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, my junior high school was having a book fair, and I bought Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets there.

My hardcover copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.
It isn't the paperback that I initially read, as I was afraid that would
fall apart after another reread. Since then, this book has been reread
many times and is, indeed, falling apart itself. Time for a new set?

That was over ten years ago, and I'm as satisfied after reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone as I was then. While it isn't as complex as the later volumes, which are positively laced with obscure hints of things to come (further evidence that J. K. Rowling is the modern master of foreshadowing), Sorcerer's Stone stands apart as a glowing example of everything that children's literature should aspire to be. The question that I asked myself while reading this time is why this stands so far above the rest. In this first book, the writing, while mostly extraordinary, has its soft spots. Harry's speech that convinces Ron and Hermione that they have to take action to protect the stone is a bit flabby (pg. 270), and Rowling's writing is "oddly, and almost sweetly, insecure" in her use of adverbs as Stephen King noted in his excellent review of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (read here). It's worth noting that Rowling's mortal writerly sin in this book (and, in fact, the whole series) isn't her use of adverbs in general. One reviewer called her lazy for her use of the adverb "deathly" in the title of the finale of this great series (read here), and that's a bit silly - it's tantamount to dismissing an entire part of speech as useless in writing. King is right, however, about her use of adverbs to modify dialogue being a symptom of insecurity. When someone speaks quickly, angrily, sleepily, and shortly as they do with great frequency in this volume and later volumes (in fact, open any of the larger Harry Potter books to any page of dialogue and you'll more than likely find a few of these offending adverbs), it's a symptom of the writer believing that their writing surrounding the dialogue isn't strong enough to convey the message they're attempting to convey. This flaw, comes off, as King said, as "almost sweet..." because the writing is so absurdly strong.

In fact, the flaws of this books don't manage to reduce the pleasure of the overall reading experience. In fact, Rowling's imperfections as a writer make the outright excellence of this book all the more phenomenal. Her world building is as strong as that of any fantasy writer I know. Tolkien fans might take issue with that, as that brilliant man developed entire languages and cultures in The Lord of the Rings (not to mention The Hobbit and, of course, The Silmarillion), but Rowling never attempts to do any of that. Her world building is one of simple fun, awe, and love. We discover the wizarding world as Harry Potter does, and as each page turns, another mystery unfolds, immersing the reader in this incredible piecework of a world.

This is the gorgeous 10th Anniversary Edition of Harry Potter
and the Sorcerer's Stone, which I hope to add to my collection.

The themes that will come into play in the later books, most especially 'Love is the strongest magic of all' and "To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure" (pg. 297), are present in this book, elegantly woven through the chapters. In a lesser writer's hands, these messages might have come off as heavy-handed, but Rowling is unrivaled at her skill of doling out bits of backstory, theme, and character development at the moment they're absolutely needed. I suspect that Harry Potter might be as excellent as it is, not only because those themes are at work in the story, but because those themes seem to be ideals to which J. K. Rowling lives.

Now, because I made a promise to a lady, it might be a week or two before I take on Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. I've promised to read The Hunger Games trilogy in full, and I'm actually quite excited for it. After those are finished... I'm taking the next step in the great Harry Potter adventure.


  1. Great review, and it makes me want to re-read the series and see what I missed the first time as I got lost in story and did not pay attention to the adverbs.

  2. After all that trying "Comment Success"? :-P