For the last few months, we’ve been reading the Harry Potter series aloud. Mostly it’s been A doing the reading, and he does a marvelous Dobby (better than the movie). I’ve pitched in when he’s had a cold, laryngitis, or still eating. Our dining table is in the living room, so right after supper, we moved to the couch and love seat, the 4 of us, A and I and our 2 kids squished in, and listened.
I’d read the first 4 books a couple of years after they came out, but never got past that. And to be honest, I was impressed by Rowling’s inventiveness and the fact that her books had galvanized the imagination and reading eagerness of so many kids (and adults), but not by the writing.
However listening to the books read aloud made the most of her inventiveness and plotting ability over a long series. I know from selecting material from my own books for readings, that what makes a good scene for silent reading (rich, complex, multi-faceted) makes a poor choice for reading aloud. Simplicity and high drama or comedy works better. For example, I was so moved by the scene where Harry is finally kind to Kreacher and offers him the locket that I re-read it to myself, and it didn’t have any of the nuance or poignancy it did when A read it aloud with Kreacher’s piteous voice.
During these last few months, A and I often rolled our eyes over Dumbledore’s twinkling blue eyes and Snape’s curtain of greasy hair, and by the last couple of books we had frequent occasion to joke about Deux Ex Machina.
As an aside, A (who is a font of encyclopedic knowledge) told me that the phrase Deus Ex Machina came from the days of ancient Greek plays. Mediocre playwrights, unsure of of how to resolve their protagonists’ plights, brought in a god to fix things. Said god would be held in the “sky” by a crane (that’s the machine part) on the stage.
But even so, we read through all the books, at first slowly, gathering speed as we got to the last one, which we zipped through in a week, spending hours last weekend, when I was under the weather, reading aloud (our kids pleading No More!). It’s hard to find books that we can read aloud as a family, which entertain both adults and kids, and this series did it marvelously. I looked forward every day to the family snuggles and the total relaxation of listening to A read. It was a blessing and a gift, and Rowling has forever changed popular culture.
This is something nobody could predict and for all the best selling books on how to become rich and famous as a writer (or whatever), it simply couldn’t have been anticipated. She didn’t have an easy time getting published initially, and all the current wisdom at the time said that a 7 book series about a magical boarding school would have a limited audience. Instead:
As of June 2008, the book series has sold more than 400 million copies and has been translated into 67 languages, and the last four books have consecutively set records as the fastest-selling books in history.
I’m glad there weren’t any Kindles at the time. There is something (dare I say it? yes!) magical about children and their parents camping out and lining up to buy books right when they come out. The books have a rich vocabulary and the descriptions of characters’ emotional reactions and dilemmas were terrific. We’ve had a wonderful few months with them. But I’m also glad it’s over. I feel liberated, the sky is open to what we do next.
One last thing–I often thought while we were reading about Jane Austen reading her manuscripts to her family, sitting near the source of illumination, reading by candle light, others listening while hands quietly worked the way mine did, one time rolling a ball of yarn, another time knitting, or my daughters working on some craft. It is an old-fashioned pleasure and one that we got to experience in a live and present way as the leaves fell and the bare trees bore snow and then leafed again. We had an early spring this year, the warmest April for 150 years. We had a family experience.
And most of all, in Rowling’s vision, which people lined up to buy, what defeats evil is love. That’s all.
P.S. For a sharp and funny summary of The Deathly Hallows, see here.