Saturday, August 21, 2010

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone Book Review

Just to warn you: the Harry Potter books have been out for anywhere from 3-13 years and have been made into movies, games, fanfiction, et cetera, as well as being a hot topic in the news and just about everywhere else; therefore I will be making absolutely no effort to avoid spoilers in these reviews discussions of the books so for the uninitiated, read at your own risk.

Yes, I do have a Harry Potter mug.  Also a teapot
and a Snitch.  If it helps, I didn't ask
for any of these things.
It was about ten years ago when I first heard of Harry Potter.  I think I was in the seventh grade , or maybe the eighth.  I know for sure that I was derisive of the plot – some kid’s story about a wizard?  What use did I have for that?  I had the beginnings of literary snobbery (which persists to this day) and in all fairness, I was fairly precocious when it came to books, reading far above my age level throughout childhood.  Skeptic that I was, I decided to see what all the fuss was about and purchased (or had purchased for me by my mother) my first copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  I say first copy because I initially bought the paperback version and within an incredibly short time, it was falling apart.

Sorcerer’s Stone is probably my all-time most-read book and is unlikely to ever be overtaken by any book other than Chamber of Secrets and Prisoner of Azkaban (because of course you had to read all of the earlier books whenever a new one came out!).  I quickly turned from Potter-doubter to Potter-enthusiast to unhealthily-obsessed-Potter-lover and did the same to everybody within reach.  Over the years, that first paperback copy and my current hardcover have made the rounds: they have seen my mother, sister, sister-in-law, sister’s friends, several of my own friends, my uncle, and my husband.  I’m quite possibly missing people because I am probably one of J.K. Rowling’s greatest advertisers (though the fact that my powers of persuasion didn’t lead to more book sales probably makes me useless).  I think that every single one of these people were originally doubters who were quickly won over (like Peter Pettigrew).

The book itself (as an object, not a story) tells the tale.  Even considering the fact that this copy has not seen every reader that I introduced to Harry, it shows its wear.  The book will stay open on any page you choose without the assistance of, say, your hand.  Its spine was long ago broken, though in the world of books that means that it is well-loved not ill-used.  The crease on the dust jacket has permanently expanded from the number of times it was used as a bookmark.  If you remove the dust jacket, you can see, among other things, Korn etched into the cover.  As I was never a Korn fan, I know that this comes from my middle school best friend Krystina, who was probably writing on a piece of paper on top of the book.  I was annoyed when I first discovered this but now it makes me smile.  This book has been places.  Literally.  Maybe not this book, but others in the series have made it to Texas and Florida and probably elsewhere.
If you look really closely you can see the word Korn.
So what is it that makes this book so captivating?  The entire series is attractive and appealing but it’s really this first book that’s the most important, the volume that decided the fate of the rest.  Is it the escapism that the magical world so clearly offers, both to Harry who spent the first eleven years of his life being ignored by his non-magical aunt and uncle and the reader who only wishes that is were real?  The whimsical tone that Rowling uses to describe transfigured cats and earwax-flavored jelly beans?  Or perhaps it’s the promise that even the smallest, scrawniest, least significant of us can change the world.  In truth, it’s all of these things and more.  Forgive me for being cheesy but the world that J.K. Rowling created is magical and casts a spell over you from the first page.

For years now, upon rereading Sorcerer’s Stone, I have found a level of immaturity to the writing that bothers me to the point that I sometimes want to put it down.  This is the same as what I felt in reading Uglies; however, like Uglies, this fades after the first few chapters.  Whether that is because the writing improves or the plot takes over I’m not sure, though I tend to think that it’s the latter.  There’s something just a bit cliché about the sentence, “Dudley’s mouth fell open in horror, but Harry’s heart gave a leap” (22) that hasn’t disappeared by the end-of-the-year feast, “the best evening of Harry’s life… he would never, ever forget tonight” (307).  These are all words that we have seen before; of course, it’s common to get caught up in hackneyed phrasing because many of us speak that way and few can’t help but to write like that, but J.K. Rowling is not one of those people.  One of my favorite lines of literature is spoken by Dumbledore in The Half-Blood Prince: “And now, Harry, let us step out into the night and pursue that flighty temptress, adventure” (56).  Rowling has the ability to say things in a new way but, like Harry, has yet to find her voice in this first installment.

And maybe that is the true magic of the Harry Potter series.  Many have noted that young readers can grow up with Harry, particularly those that started reading from the beginning.  As Harry grows, so do they, and so it is okay that each book is a little darker than the last and death becomes more real.  The plots mature with the child reader and a lasting relationship is forged, rather than being left behind with Nancy Drew and The Boxcar Children (or, you know, books that kids today actually read).  But there is more to it than that.  The writing itself changes which is possibly more important than the plot.  The narrative voice matures as the expectations of the growing audience increase.  For a child, a few clichés are okay – they are familiar and identifiable.  But as that child becomes a teen and then an adult, she will notice those clichés and want more – and Rowling will give it to her.  In all aspects, these books grow with the reader and so the reader can grow with Harry.  Of course, the maturing narrative voice is a moot point for those who fell in love with Harry as adults, like many of my converts.  I tip my hat to Rowling’s fantastic plot that wins over seasoned readers and retains those of us who have matured beyond it.
Probably my favorite chapter of the first book.  Note how well the book
stays open on its own.  Perfect for sipping chai.
Back to Sorcerer’s Stone.  Despite my issues with the narrative voice, it is still a fantastic story and first installment of a series.  It is whimsical and endearing, adventurous and everyday, and familiar in its strangeness.  Rowling’s introduction into a world of flying motorcycles and singing hats, breathtaking sports and villainous teachers, is inspired for more than these extraordinary features.  It is the story of a child who feels what other children feel and want what other children and is all at once pitiable and admirable, courageous and unsure of himself.  This is where the true magic lies.  Harry is a kid like any other kid and he grows up like any other.  He is a friend and a confidant and, more importantly than anything else, Rowling establishes that from the very beginning.

In case I haven't made it clear, I recommend this book.  Read it to yourself.  Listen to it while jogging.  Pull an Obama and read it to your kids (which I definitely plan on doing).  Then get the rest of the books and do the same.  Make sure to buy hardcover because you will be reading them over and over.


  1. When I was growing up, I distinctly avoided the series because a) it was really popular and b) I had made an effort to avoid that which was really popular. I was an awkward kid. Still am.

    And can we use faux-British accents when we read to the children?

  2. What a thoughtful post not just about the book in questions as a novel, but about its effect on you and of course about how the series developed. You know I was also a doubter, and it was ETC campers who brought me around to reading the books, after they were all carrying Goblet of Fire in their backpacks on the AT and in their canoes on the river. I have never been so glad to finally bow to peer pressure.

  3. Just one have a Harry Potter tea pot?! Why have I never seen it?!?!

    I'm sure I've told you this story, but when kids used to rent Harry Potter movies at the video store I'd ask them if they'd read the books yet and if they said no I'd tell them they weren't allowed to rent the movie without reading the books. Usually they just giggled at me and then I said, "Okay, you can rent the movie, but you have to promise to read the book, too."

    Also, one time some kid walked past a Harry Potter poster at the video store and randomly announced in a bad British accent, "Harry Pottaaaahh" and I literally fell on the floor and burst into hysterics because it was HILARIOUS. Okay, maybe the falling on the floor was done on purpose so the kid wouldn't see me laughing, but seriously - so funny.

  4. I love rereading the HP books. They're so familiar now but still make me laugh and panic as much as when they did initially! I find it so easy to become immersed in the world Rowling creates. When I'm feeling down, rereading one of the books most always makes me feel better. They're such good pick-me-ups. =)