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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

In this issue:

Books:Julia Sneden asks What Makes Harry Sell? More sophisticated adults may interpret this very long coming-of-age series as metaphor, but the children simply enjoy the rattling good adventure.

And Consider This: Getting Along (almost) With Your Adult Kids, a handy manual for anyone with grown children. A sampling of chapter headings: The Terrible Twenties" and "The Questing Forties."

Clueless in Academe attacks the American curriculum's "sheer cognitive overload" for obscuring the culture of argument that underlies all intellectual life.

Books

WHAT MAKES HARRY SELL?

Is there anyone out there who hasn't heard of the Harry Potter phenomenon? This best-best-best seller of a children's book has made its author richer than the Queen of England, and its publishers (Scholastic Books, in America) the envy of the publishing world. It has enticed children to put down their video games and read, and not just children, either. I know of adults ranging from my 20-year-old neighbor to the members of book clubs in a couple of retirement homes who are all fans of Harry. The release of each new book in the series now means a mega-event, with parties at bookstores that last until midnight on the night before the sale date, and climax with the first sale of the books at one minute past the witching hour. Children arrive dressed Potteresque for the event, i.e. wearing black robes and pointed hats, with dark-framed glasses mended with tape on the nose piece, and wands in their hands. There are plenty of grownups in line at the cash register on those nights, too.

The influence of the books is so pervasive that a couple of children I know have begun to mimic British phrases such as "queuing up" for standing in line. One child has even begun referring to her sweater as a "jumper." There is also quite a bit of made-up lingo in the books that has become part of our kids' vocabulary, and it's not only the children: the other day I heard an annoyed mother tell her 10-year-old: "You are behaving like the worst kind of muggle!" (Muggles, for those of you who have somehow escaped the books, are what the magical world calls people who have no magical ability).

I first discovered Harry when I bought Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone as a gift for my granddaughter, back in 1997. I decided to read a chapter or two before sending it on to her, just to see what all the fuss was about. Some three hundred pages later, I finished the book. I had been so engrossed (well, the better word might be entrapped) that I hadn't even noticed the day flying by. From then on, I was hooked.

Lately, some major criticism has come Harry's way, and I have found myself wondering just what it is that draws me (and millions of others) to the books.

The writing itself is at best pedestrian, heavy on the adverbs, occasionally awkward, and excessively wordy. Rowling could use a good editor who knows how to wield a blue pencil. While the first two books were of a good length for middle school children, the fourth book jumped to a huge 734 pages, and the latest, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, is a true whopper at 870. Granted, the lines of print are widely spaced, but the book itself is at times redundant and weighted with unnecessary trivia. It would have benefited from judicious cutting.

So what keeps me coming back to the series?

For one thing, Rowling tells a rousing good story, aimed at kids but lively enough to engage adults. Her protagonist (Harry) is an orphan who has been reared in a household that didn't want him. A classic underdog, he has suffered all kinds of indignities and oppressions, but somehow has retained his bright spirit. He is small for his age; he wears glasses; he is skinny and often beaten up by bullies; his mop of black hair is unmanageable; and he is frequently in trouble through no fault of his own.

But at the age of ten, wonderful things begin to happen to him. He is rescued from his unhappy childhood and sent to Hogwarts, a school for young wizards and witches, where he discovers that his name is famous in the wizarding world, having as an infant survived a deathly attack by the utterly evil Lord Voldemort. Voldemort first murdered Harry's parents, and then was nearly killed himself when the curse he hurled at the infant Harry mysteriously rebounded. Harry was unharmed but was left with a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead. He was rescued by Albus Dumbledore, a great and good wizard, and hidden away in the home of his aunt and uncle, the muggles who reared him so harshly.

When the books take up the tale, we learn that Voldemort survived, although for the ensuing ten years he was bodiless. In each of the books, Voldemort is slowly gathering more strength and rallying his evil minions around him. He is bent on destroying Harry Potter, although thus far Harry has survived every confrontation. This running battle between the forces of evil and good will last throughout the series.

Page Two, What Makes Harry Sell?

 

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©2003 Julia Sneden for SeniorWomenWeb
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