Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling

Raincoast, 1997 (2001 reprint), 223 pages, C$9.95 tpb, ISBN 1-55192-398-X

“Well, I’m surprised to see that you’ve condescended to read Harry Potter” said my uncle’s girlfriend when she saw me with the first volume in hand.

The only really surprising thing is how long it’s taken me to actually read the darn thing.

I’ve always been deeply suspicious of the popular intellectual snobbery that states that “if it’s popular, it can’t be good”. Without citing too many examples, there are times where something is famous because it’s good. It might not be better than your favorite obscure painting/movie/author, but that in itself isn’t a reason to criticize anything wildly fashionable.

I first wanted to read Harry Potter a long time ago. I downloaded the pirated electronic versions of the whole series late in 2000, only to realize that I just don’t read novels on screen; my reader’s reflexes are still hard-wired to paper, ink and glue. My sister bought and read the first two volumes. Ages passed. A movie got made. I borrowed the first volume from my sister, then consciously put it away and enjoyed the movie on its own terms. A few more weeks passed and then I decided to celebrate the end of 2001 with a good fluffy read.

I enjoyed almost every page of it.

Before gushing, though, allow me to say that there are two criticisms I can heap upon J.K. Rowling and the first Harry Potter novel.

First, how deliberate it all seems. Let’s see: to ensnare kids, what better than a misunderstood, under-appreciated hero who really has exceptional magical powers and whose parents are really powerful magicians? You couldn’t design a better hook on purpose, much like Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game seemed mathematically designed to hook young teenagers with pretty much the same levers.

Second; how conventional it all is. Tales of magical academies and of young magicians have been written before. Some of them quite good. Almost every gadget used in The Philosopher’s Stone has been invented elsewhere, used elsewhere and seen elsewhere. There isn’t a lot of new, inventive fantasy material in Harry Potter. (So far.)

But guess what? None of these two objections matter very much to the base reader that I am. What is far more important is how clearly Rowling writes, how well she builds her characters and how many little flourishes she manages to pack on every page of her novel.

I attended the World Fantasy Convention in early November 2001, and the slightly dismissive tone in which Harry Potter was discussed struck me as unfair. While elements of the Pottermania leave me nonplussed (the fourth volume shouldn’t have won the Hugo, for instance), a lot of it struck me as simple sour grapes at someone outside the genre reaping all the attention and the money.

The first volume of the series, whatever the objections of the fantasy litterati are, is a wonderful little book that didn’t feel at all like a kid’s novel. I’ve always been a sucker for the “academy” type of novel, from Starship Troopers to, say, Gravity Dreams, and The Philosopher’s Stone ranks among the best of them. It takes conventional elements of magical training and cleverly stuffs them in the British educational system. Simple and obvious, but not so obvious that it’s cliché. And, like it or not, Rowling’s produced a fantasy novel that is immeasurably more enjoyable than at least 90% of what’s published in “adult” fantasy today.

While I’m not completely bowled over, I still feel that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is a great little book that will make you -even you!- fall in love with reading all over again. Embrace Pottermania. In this case, what’s popular is what’s good.

(A few words about the movie vs the book: Amazing fidelity, though the book “feels” more adequately paced. The novel also provides more details on Harry’s family life, Hagrid’s past and one or two extra challenges before the end, not to mention a second Quiddich game.)

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