Monday, July 11

Posted by Laurel Garver on Monday, July 11, 2011 9 comments
Today I have a guest post from my husband Joel, an assistant professor of philosophy at La Salle University who teaches a course, Harry Potter and Philosophy. He also contributed a chapter to a collection of "philosophy for beginners" essays that engage Rowling's world--The Ultimate Harry Potter and Philosophy: Hogwarts for Muggles.

Because of this, his university PR department often send reporters his way that are covering Harry Potter topics. Joel kindly let me post his response to a reporter at the Hartford Courant (not sure when/if his comments will appear in the planned article).

She had asked,
"How does the experience of readers today differ from the generation of readers who were growing up as the books first came out?"

Joel replied:

I've taught Harry Potter to college students who grew up with them and I have an elementary school-age daughter who is now reading through the books, so I've seen both generations of readers and movie-watchers.

It seems to me that Rowling always intended the books to be taken slowly, over an extended time -- and that is how we are guiding our daughter in her reading. The books are intended to grow up with the children who read them, as they in fact did by necessity with the first generation of readers.

After all, with each successive book the volumes get longer, the plots become increasingly more complex, the main characters grow up, the wizarding world becomes darker and scarier, the stakes become higher, and the themes of the books -- love, death, relationships, sacrifice -- become more mature. There are matters to be puzzled out, problems to be pondered, and realizations to be fought for.

So, these are not books meant to be read by a precocious youngster all in a single summer. Rather, the volumes reward delayed gratification and re-reading. A rapid read will miss too much and fail to absorb all that is going on.

This seems to me part of the genius of Rowling's work -- taking young readers, carrying them along through the character's experiences, and growing them up and helping them mature right along with Harry, Ron, and Hermione. The magic of that sort of literary and personal transformation requires time and patient reading.

Another difference today is that many readers of the books will have begun with the films rather than the books. For those of us who read the books first and then viewed the films afterwards, there was always a certain disappointment with the films. Given the limits and strictures of film-making, they could not help but fall short of the rich tapestry of Rowling's world, the depth of her characterizations, and the complexity of her plots.

The relationship between the films and the books is now reversed for many children (and adults!). There's nothing wrong with that in principle and I'm sure new readers who have seen the films will be impressed by how much of the books is left off the screen.

But what will be lost in reading the books after the films is the sense of discovery the first readers enjoyed -- getting to know these characters and imagining Rowling's world. For many new readers, Hogwarts will always be the place director Chris Columbus imagined and Harry will always be Daniel Radcliffe. Furthermore, these new readers will also lose the experience of being surprised again and again by plot twists, mistaken identities, and startling revelations. And that's a sad loss, I think.

What was your experience with reading the books and watching the films? What are your thoughts on taking the series slowly, books first?


  1. I think there is a benefit to reading slowly but it's unrealistic to expect kids to read like that, or anyone! But I'm glad I read HP when there was buzz but no movies. I had no idea what to expect. I think kids miss that today.

  2. Wow. Amazingly put. And I couldn't agree more! She's a genius for how she made this world and these books. So right about needing to read them slowly to absorb them and not all at once if you're a first time reader. I'm glad I read them as they came out, though, and was forced to wait! I don't think I would have had enough self control to take them all in slowly otherwise!

  3. Laurel, it sounds like your husband teaches the most amazing class! :-) I love this post and agree that there is going to be a totally different experience for new readers. I read the first 4 books rather quickly, then waited, and waited for the rest to trickle out. That waiting was torture. I remember when Voldemort 'came back' and I waited for the next book for a year, I just kept thinking, 'Voldemort is back. He's out there! And I don't know what's happening!' It felt so real to me, those long waits for the next book. Reading them that way provided a different experience.

  4. I read all 7 books to my son who was 7 at the time. I enjoyed reading them aloud to him much more then when I read them to myself probably because of the slower pace. This is a great post. I found you on Jen's blog unedited. And now your newest follower.

  5. If I had children I would definitely spread the books out. Let them experience them as they were intended.

    Actually I happen to see the first movie first. Not until after the second movie came out did I discover that these were actual written children's books.

    I picked up the first book after Chamber of Secrets. I read Sorcerer's Stone in one day. Grabbed two and three and read them in the next two days. Goblet of fire had just come out a few months prior.

    After completing Goblet of Fire, I had to experience the long, long wait for Order of the Phoenix. I was obsessed. I re-read the first four several times in that two year span.

    As for the movies, Only the first two create the magic for me. Once Richard Harris died, Dumbledore's character died along with him for me. Not to mention Christopher Columbus was THE best director and they should have let him finish with the rest of the movies.

  6. Laura: I don't know if it's unrealistic as much as countercultural to ask kids to wait, to ask them to approach things only as they have the maturity to handle them. Rowling's work rewards the patient, a virtue that our culture has overwhelmingly devalued. That's really Joel's point here.

    Colene: Interestingly, self-control is one of the things that makes the good characters good in this series. Patience is the one virtue Harry most struggles with, especially in book 7.

  7. Melissa: I can't tell you how many students from other schools ask to audit the class. It filled in under an hour that last time it was offered. It is fascinating how our reading context shapes our reading experience. Didn't your sense of danger and stakes increase between books 4 and 5 because of the wait?

    Jennifer: Thanks for the follow! I had all seven books read aloud to me by Joel (who is guest posting here) the first time through. There's something magical about sharing books this way with someone else. And for sure you digest them more slowly and notice details you might skim when reading silently.

  8. Michael: As a parent, it's tough to make kids wait, but we're still holding strong. My daughter isn't yet 9 and I won't read her book 4 until she's at least 10. I told her there was kissing in book 4 and that made her far more willing to wait. LOL.

    I'd read the books prior to every movie, so my experience of the films isn't quite like yours. I often was irked at Chris Columbus's directoral decisions that weighed visual spectacle above essentials of the plot. But that's because I knew ahead of time just how much was being left out. On their own terms, his films hang together pretty well and do make Harry's world compelling.

  9. I wish I grew up reading the books! I was already in college when the first one came out, and I didn't start reading them until the third one I think? But after that, the anticipation and excitement that came with each release was AWESOME. I love that feeling when a sequel is about to be released and I sit down and gobble it up all in one night. And to experience that with my husband and others was wonderful too.

    I think we don't have to worry about our children experiencing it different than we did when we read them. Because they will most likely be anticipating a new set of series so they will know what it felt like for us.