Due to intractable snobbishness, I had never picked up even a single installment of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series up until last month, when I read all seven novels. I borrowed the set from a friend who is a dedicated fan. “The great thing about them is that they grow with the reader,” he told me (somewhat breathlessly). “The first one is written for 10-year-olds, the second one is written for 11-year-olds ….”
This friend was 15 when the first episode, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was published — and therein lies my problem with the books: They’re for kids. I had avoided them as a reaction to the inexorable infantilization and dumbing down of popular culture. But maybe I was just being miserable. Perhaps I would discover something millions of others obviously had.
My early experiences weren’t promising. The first two books, The Philosopher’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, are rather twee, gentle adventures, and it’s hard for me to see why they resonated so strongly with so many people. Clearly written as the first in an ongoing series, Philosopher’s Stone introduces a number of questions, for example: Harry has been left to grow up with borderline-abusive, non-magical relatives; why has no-one from the wizarding world checked in on him for the last 10 years? The plot of the second book is also more or less the same as the first, swapping a giant three-headed dog as an enemy for an oversized snake antagonist. I wasn’t impressed. Why had adults been raving about these books for the last 15 years? I felt distinctly unenthusiastic as I started the third novel, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
Azkaban confounded my expectations: satisfyingly dark and with some real moments of menace, it introduces the spooky Dementors, soul-stealing undead wardens of the titular high-security prison. There’s a rather obvious twist at the end, but it is by far my favorite of the series.
I read the first three books quickly enough — each took four or five hours of solid reading — but the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, was a struggle. It focuses heavily on the ill-defined and illogical game of Quidditch, a boring mish-mash of water polo and croquet played on broomsticks. Too much of the book is taken up with confusing extended sequences describing games.
The next book in the series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, introduces the eponymous group, a kind of magical A-team dedicated to preventing arch-baddie Voldemort’s return. None of the order are particularly bad-ass (Tonks, who is able to change her hair color, is a middle-aged mum’s idea of non-threatening cool), and there’s a weird sub-plot with Harry pursuing a girl whose boyfriend was murdered in the last book. (Perhaps it’s because I read them within days of each other, but it seemed way too soon; in the book, a year has passed, but in real life, it had been three years between installments.) This is the longest book, but I read it more quickly than Goblet of Fire. The plot is quick-moving, at least.
As I ploughed through the books, I rediscovered something I found out at a young age: reading consecutive books by the same author is usually a mistake. Halfway into Chamber of Secrets (the second book) I was already thoroughly sick of people “yelling”, “gasping” and “grinning.” Rowling is not a remarkable literary talent. Her evil characters in particular are completely one-dimensional throughout the series, and there are plot holes you could fly a dragon through, for example: Magic must be kept secret from the rest of humanity; why? Because, according to the particularly annoying Hagrid (a giant groundskeeper, who is worryingly keen to socialize with young children), “everyone’d be wantin’ magic solutions to their problems.” In the series magic appears to be a completely limitless resource which can do more or less anything; kind of asshole-ish of the wizards to insist on keeping it all for themselves.
Rowling does frame a story well, particularly with the final two books, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which had me turning pages deep into the night. These later books in the series also carry a compelling sense of threat: I knew Harry and his chums Ron and Hermione would be triumphant, but at points I genuinely felt they might not be. Rowling really does take it right down to wire.
Yet the final two books are marred by extended, tedious flashback sequences detailing Harry’s father’s and mother’s stories. Still, Deathly Hallows, the final book, is my favorite after Azkaban. Its various mini-quests to destroy horcruxes (pieces of Voldemort’s soul) are tense and exciting.
Ultimately, I’m still baffled as to why these books are so numbingly dominant, though nostalgia obviously accounts for a lot of their popularity. I think back on some of my favorite books and authors from childhood with enormous affection — Roald Dahl and Tove Jansson’s Moomins in particular — but that doesn’t explain how Rowling’s work manages to make adult readers completely suspend their critical faculties. Perhaps it’s witchcraft.