Book Stuff

*Reading Harry Potter Aloud

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.

People Waiting for Book 7 at Borders, by Zack Sheppard (click to enlarge)

P.S. For a sharp and funny summary of The Deathly Hallows, see here.

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10 thoughts on “*Reading Harry Potter Aloud”

  1. I haven’t had the chance to read these aloud yet, although I look forward to it with Mlle Petitvore when she’s old enough, so I hadn’t considered how the text might simply read better that way. I wasn’t impressed with Rowling’s writing, for the reasons you mention, but I admire her imagination and the stories that came out of it.

    What will you read next?

    1. Verbivore, I remember when my children were infants and just looking forward to moving from cloth books to board books and then board books to picture books. It’s sweet and strange to think of that now. It reminds me though of Pat the Bunny. Have you seen it? It’s quite an old book but it has various textures and surfaces on the different pages and my children loved it from about a year old on to three or four. I was really surprised how long it lasted as a regular part of their repertoire. We can’t figure out what to read next. It’s a challenge to find books that read well aloud, entertain kids at my children’s age (8 and 11), and are interesting to adults. So for now we’re all going to read to ourselves every evening. And I’m really enjoying that.

  2. I enjoy the Harry Potter books. They may not be great literature, but they’re fun, which is what matters. We went to the midnight opening for the release of the last book, not because we needed to own the book RIGHT NOW, but because it felt like a once-in-a-lifetime event.

    And I’m amazed that you didn’t know the origin of deus ex machina (but maybe I’ve spent too much time hanging around with historians!).

    1. Rachel, that must have been fun to be there. It is surprising what I don’t know! But then it is surprising what I do know. πŸ™‚ I have holes, but then I have a depth of historical knowledge that is very detailed at particular points. When I have written historically, I am obsessive about getting all the details right. I start out with the broader sweep of the period, reading economic, political and social history and then getting down to the nitty gritty of food, utensils, advertising, fashion worn by different sorts of people, right down to the exact year and time of year, colour, cloth, and cut. And that includes not only the books I’ve written, but a couple of books I prepared to write that didn’t end up making the grade.

  3. I loved reading aloud with my son, and we would have had great fun with all the Harry Potter books had they been published when he was a youngster. I recall reading The Hobbit aloud to him when he was about 10. The summer before his sophmore year in high school, I read aloud some of the books on his summer reading list. Is that cheating? Shhh….don’t tell πŸ˜‰

    Thanks for recalling some nice memories this mother’s day eve πŸ™‚

  4. Those books are REALLY good to read out loud. The language may not be beautiful prose, but it’s all the better for family reading of the kind you’ve been enjoying. I envy you! We used to do that a lot as a family and now those years are passed – I’d have them back in a shot, if I could.

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