The British Deluxe (first 5), the U.S. Hardcover (all 7), the Time Magazine that announced the craze in September of 1999 and my favorite cover – the British adult Deathly Hallows

“You should read these,” the good looking manager at work said.  I had just started working at Barnes and Noble – my first bookstore job – and it was the third week of September in 1999.  She was pointing at the three Harry Potter books, which were the top sellers in the store.  The title character was about to make the cover of Time Magazine as the sales of the third book were sparking a craze.

Since I could check out hardcovers for free, I took the first one home.  The next day, having read the whole thing, I brought it back.  When she asked about it, my initial reaction was that they weren’t as good as the Narnia books.  For all the fun ways it which it combined a boarding school novel with classic fantasy, I felt the book lacked depth in its characters – they were all too clearly black or white, with the only possible exception being Professor Snape, but he was so demonized by the main characters that it was hard to tell how much gray he had.  So when she asked, I said “There’s no character in the book as good as Edmund in the Narnia books.”

She encouraged me to keep reading them.  That was easy enough and the first one was enjoyable enough, so that night I brought home the second book.  The next day, that came back and I brought home the third one.  The second one had been about equal to the first, but the third one was a big step up.  The characters had definitely begun to develop various shades of gray and the back story of the characters was beginning to fill in.  So, there I was, now anxiously awaiting the fourth one, right at the head of the wave that was beginning to build.

Oh, and the good looking manager who insisted that I read them, told me how wonderful they were and defended their quality against the Narnia books?  We got married in between books four and five and had Thomas before book six.

There are seven books, of course.  But there are also a lot more than that.  There are the films of course, just about to conclude their epic decade in which they have managed to dethrone Star Wars as the highest grossing box office series of all-time.  I’ll write more about those after the last one has come out.  There is also the LEGO, which I have a nice collection of.  In fact, Veronica indulged me at Target in June of 2002 as we filled out our wedding registry, allowing me to add various Harry Potter LEGO sets.  But she was kind of irritated when that’s what my Powell’s friends actually gave to us for wedding presents.  I insisted that in 10 years when our children were playing with the LEGO sets that we would remember who gave us those much more easily than who gave us a waffle iron.  I have no idea who gave us the waffle iron.  But Jill, Tavis, Sean and Julia gave us the Harry Potter LEGO.  And I’ll write a post about those sometime later as well.

our whole Harry Potter book collection

As I said, there are seven books.  There are also a lot of other things in the picture.  First, there is the assorted collectibles I have picked up through the years.  Remember that the release of the Harry Potter books (and films) have taken my through the book world.  When the first two books were released, I was nowhere near a bookstore, and I readily admit, when I started at Barnes and Noble, I don’t think I had ever heard of Harry Potter.  But that all changed quickly, as I started there the Saturday after the release of Prisoner of Azkaban.  The fourth book I actually ordered from Amazon, because Veronica and I by then had both left Barnes and Noble, and I had just left working at the PCC bookstore.  By the time Order of the Phoenix came out, I had been at Powell’s for three years (starting just three weeks after the release of Goblet of Fire).  We went to the big release party, where they played the first film against the wall of the building across the street.  By then I had actually read the first two chapters of a galley copy, sitting in the marketing department.  By the time of the release of Half-Blood Prince, I had been gone from Powell’s for over a year, so I headed back to Barnes and Noble for their release party.  Our old manager remembered me and moved me to the head of the line, especially after I told her that Veronica wasn’t there because she was at home with our one year old.  It was later that day that Thomas whacked his head, giving himself a forehead scar (though not in the shape of a lightning bolt) and I remember having the book in the waiting room at Kaiser and the receptionist telling me not to say anything about it, because she was getting it when she got off work.  When the seventh book finally came out, I was at my second Borders.  I ran much of the party and I was the one who brought out the books, and when the crowd was so noisy that they couldn’t hear the loudspeaker, I was the one who got everyone’s attention and got them all in line.  And then, due to a family reunion, we got in the car, and after being awake all day, drove straight to Wisconsin, where I finally got to read the book.  Of course, I still read the books.  All the books.  I have every time the new book or new film has come out.  Now that the films are done, I’ll just have to decide the next time I want to read them again.  Because they are always worth another read.

So, the collectibles.  There are magnets, wristbands, promotional displays, all gathered on the shelves there.  There are also plenty of magazines, from that first cover of TIME, to plenty of Entertainment Weekly’s about the films.  There are Harry Potter journals, and a Viewmaster reel and a stationary kit.  And there are the books, of course.  First, we have the books that aren’t actually part of the series.  First there are a few books designed for kids that we happen to have.  There is the Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone: A Poster Book.  Then there is The Creatures of Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone Deluxe Coloring Kit (that’s it on the second shelf).  There is also Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone: A Deluxe Pop-Up Book (there on the bottom shelf).  Also on the bottom shelf are two books I will talk about in the later posts: Harry Potter Film Wizardry and LEGO Harry Potter: Building the Magical World.  There is also The Tales of Beedle the Bard, a nice fairy tale type book for kids that is also a nice addendum to people who have read the whole series.

Then there are the novels.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (U.K.)

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone  /  Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone

  • First Published:  1997
  • First Line:  “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”
  • Editions We Own:

The Novel:  The first line says a lot about the book.  It is a kids book, through and through.  Harold Bloom rather savagely attacked it, disclaiming that it is not better to be reading Harry Potter than to be reading nothing at all.  And it’s entirely possibly that if there had only been the one book, it would have been forgotten before too long in the large pile of children’s literature.  But the book, in spite of its weaknesses, does endure.  It endures, in part, because it creates a nice vision of the world of magic.  We learn so much more in the later books, but it is all set in place here – Diagon Alley, the Ministry, the long treasured history of Hogwarts.  By giving us a world partially our own, but enriched with fantasy, she sets in the head of every child reading that they might be that child that will get the letter to Hogwarts.

There are weaknesses in the book.  Just about every character in the book fits into some sort of cliche.  They all are various strains of white or black, with nary a shade of gray to come in to any of them (except Snape, but we don’t really find that out much in this book).  And there are plot questions – such as, why does Hermione tell the ridiculous lie about searching for the troll when the truth is so simple?  It isn’t any less embarrassing and it would have gotten her into a lot less trouble.  Or we have the way Dumbledore is conveniently there when he needs to be and not there when the plot requires Harry to be the hero.  Plain and simple, the story is the key here and sometimes the characters have to take a back seat to make certain that things keep pointing in the right direction.

There are times, when re-reading the series, that I flat out skip the first two books.  But, there is an interesting trick that happens here.  While the greater character development and increasingly more complex stories of the later books make the first two books look simplistic (the first two are kids books – but the other books really are YA and deserve to be there, if not in outright Fantasy sections), they also add something to those earlier books.  We can see how long Rowling planned this out.  She doesn’t get backed into Star Wars like problems of the sibling relationship.  She works it out so well beforehand that we often hear about characters in previous books before we ever meet them.  Even here in the first book we hear of Sirius Black and the debt that Snape owes to James.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (U.S.)

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

  • First Published:  1998
  • First Line:  “Not for the first time, an argument had broken out over breakfast at number four, Privet Drive.”
  • Editions We Own:

The Novel:  We’ve already taken a step up by skipping the first few chapters of the first book.  I’ve always been one for back story, but the first book, written for kids, needs to slowly develop the Harry / Dursley relationship and it can drag quite a bit before Harry finally finds out he’s a wizard.  Everything up until then is the kind of dark, orphan, miserable life that so frequently comes up in British Lit, from Dickens to Roald Dahl.  But here we can skip all that and get straight into the story.

There are a few things that are painful in this book as well.  First of all, there is Dobby, who is unbelievably annoying.  Then there is the constant fuss made of Gilderoy Lockhart, which really starts to get old.  Then there is the way that Dumbledore seems to always know what is going on, but again, is conveniently not around.  There is a bit too much convenience in Chamber of Secrets – from the way the car arrives to save Harry and Ron, to the way that no one actually dies from the Basilisk.

On the other hand, of course, this is the key book to understanding what will happen later – which Rowling hinted at from early on, but given that she basically made Horcruxes up and no one knew what they were, there were no clues with which to go on.  This points out something that is both wonderful and infuriating about Rowling at the same time.  One of the things I never really liked about Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie mysteries was that the detectives always seemed to know exactly what they needed to know or could deduce it from things we couldn’t see.  Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler played more fair – we could get as much of an idea of what was going on as Spade or Marlowe.  Well, on the one hand, we never know what the hell Rowling is hinting at – for instance, who could possibly have known what the title of Deathly Hallows meant before reading the book?  On the other hand, it is proof of her gift of imagination and story-telling and part of what makes the books so enthralling – we never knew what the hell she might come up with.

With this book, Rowling both falls into a cliche and rescues herself from it at the same time.  So many Fantasy series books, especially kids or YA ones, repeat their formulas (most notably Catching Fire, which was basically Hunger Games all over again, which is why I dislike it so much).  So, here we have Harry again facing Voldemort at the end of the school year.  But she also gets out of it by having this younger Voldemort, which makes it much more interesting and at the same time, sets up everything for the later books.  It once again shows her gift for story-telling as well as the wonderful intricate plan that she had woven together before the first book ever hit bookshelves.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (U.K. trade)

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

The Novel:  Does the movie affect how I read this book?  I look at Ron and Hermione, the way they snap at each other because of their pets, but the way they draw close as well.  Do I see this as the growing relationship because it is handled so wonderfully in the film?  Or is the evidence there in the book?  Certainly I always knew that Ron and Hermione were meant for each other.  Bloom, in his complaint about the first book, mentioned that there was no sex coming through at all.  Well, they were eleven.  Here they are thirteen and they are beginning to be overwhelmed by their hormones and it starts to show.

We also again see how well the story has been planned, in both directions.  Of course, there is the main story, how we get to learn the history of James and Sirius and Remus and Peter (A quick side note here – there are a few times, while reading the books, that I think to myself, how does that work?  Not as often as I do during the major questions that pop up with Lord of the Rings, but a definite few.  The biggest one is, did Rowling simply back herself into a corner, needing Pettigrew to be in Gryffindor?  Because there is nothing in any of the books that shows he belongs in there.).  But we also get to see glimpses of Diggory and Cho in Quidditch matches against Harry and Harry notices that Cho is extremely pretty.

Rowling expands with this book and we get some wonderful story-telling.  We get nice touches like the Knight Bus and the Dementors.  We get introduced to Remus, who is my favorite Harry Potter character.  We also get one of the more fun aspects of time travel – the self-fulfilling prophecy.  And with Sirius on the run, we get a bit more of a muted ending instead of the straight forward happy endings that we saw in the first two books.  And, though again, this might be tinged by the film, I think Dumbledore begins to get more interesting here.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (U.K. Signature)

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

  • First Published:  2000
  • First Line:  “The villagers of Little Hangleton still called it ‘the Riddle House,’ even though it had been many years since the Riddle family had lived there.”
  • Editions We Own:

The Novel:  When authors begin to get popular, they got more power with their editors.  Sometimes this can be a very bad thing (especially with Thomas Harris), and there are definitely those out there who think Rowling badly needed an editor during the last several books.  I firmly disagree.  I think her story-telling gifts, the narrative that really makes the Harry Potter series come to life, gets much more firmly established with these later books and the extra pages we get.  It it these books that show how much difference there is between the films and the books.  The films are magnificent, but, stuck with a reasonable time limit, they often have to focus much more on the plot and leave out many of the extraneous details that can make the books so wonderful.

A perfect example are the trials.  In the film, we see one trial scene, even though it manages to, very well, combine aspects of two of them.  But we don’t get the full effect of the different scenes, of really seeing what Barty Crouch is like.  Chapters like this are perfect for me.  My favorite chapter of Lord of the Rings has always been “The Shadow of the Past,” and given a chance, I, like Hermione, would have eagerly read Hogwarts, A History.  Of course, unlike Hermione, I would have done it instead of doing my homework, but we are who we are.  In fact, this is one of the things I most look forward to.  All the Tolkien guides that have been written are from people culling through his works.  Rowling keeps saying she will put together a Harry Potter encyclopedia, which means she will give us a much larger history of her magical world, and I can’t wait.  I’m always so intrigued when I see these glimpses from the past.

We also, for a short while, escape the third person limited narrative that has been established.  Rowling has always played fair in that we have never known much more than Harry – so when he suspects Snape instead of Quirrell, or wants vengeance against Sirius Black, it is very understandable.  But by now, it is time for us to be free a little and learn a little more about the outside, and this we do, with the nice opening chapter on Voldemort.  It’s still third person limited, this time to Frank, but we know enough to learn a lot from this chapter.

This book is also where the series really begins to transition out of being a kids book.  The glimpses we get of future relationships, of friends struggling to deal with their hormones and emotions (one of the things that Rowling has always done well is to write her characters at their proper ages – we can get frustrated for the characters being so stubborn at times, but, when you think about, they act very much like the teenagers they are), of the larger picture that this is a war and people, good people, are going to die – these aren’t the aspects of a kids book anymore.  And then we see that wonderful scene at the end between Sirius and Snape and we begin to see the shades of gray, the thing I had complained about was so absent in the first book, and we really see that Rowling has made a more complex world than she began with and she has rewarded those readers that stuck with her.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (U.K. Deluxe)

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

  • First Published:  2003
  • First Line:  “The hottest day of the summer so far was drawing to a close and a drowsy silence lay over the large, square houses of Privet Drive.”
  • Editions We Own:

The Novel:  ” ‘One: He’s sitting on my chair.  Two: He’s wearing my clothes.  Three: His name’s Remus Lupin.’ ”  That’s Remus describing the signs that identify a werewolf in Order of the Phoenix, one of my favorite scenes in the book.  In a lot of ways, this is the darkest of the books.  Harry feels so isolated (again, this is Rowling doing an excellent job of remembering what a teenager feels like), there is so much danger out there, there has been the Azkaban breakout, the constant threat of Voldemort, those who don’t believe him, and of course, the very dark ending.  And all of this is set against the darkness of Dolores Umbridge and her reign over Hogwarts.  Looking at this, and the darkness of the seventh book is easy to behold.  We can also remember that Dumbeldore defeated Grindelwald in 1945, a date that Rowling is not without significance.  We can see the darkness of government sponsored tyranny.

But there is also laughter.  Not just really big laughs, like the way that George and Fred decide to leave school, but also more subtle things – some out of character (McGonagall encouraging Peeves with the chandelier), some perfectly in character (“Better wizards than you have lost buttocks, you know!” Moody yells at Harry, with Tonks having the perfect reaction to that kind of statement from Moody: “Who d’you know who’s lost a buttock?”).

But, uncomfortably, we are reminded that Rowling will not hesitate to sacrifice a character, especially if it works well for the story.  In a sense, it was painful that she said beforehand that somebody died, because it meant everytime someone was seriously injured, like Mr. Weasley or McGonagall, we were convinced that was it.  Yet, it all works so well.  When we finally find out what has been hinted at since the first book – why Voldemort tried to kill Harry.  It is so perfectly done that he brought it upon himself – it is only natural for someone like him.

And we also see more of the story – we learn more than we are meant to see, both about the relationship between Lily and Snape, but also between Dumbledore and Petunia (“REMEMBER MY LAST” indicates that there was more than one), but we also see hints of other characters – a mention of Scrimgeour and of course, of Regulus.  All the pieces have finally arrived – we just haven’t seen how they all fit yet.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (U.S. Deluxe)

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

  • First Published:  2005
  • First Line:  “It was nearing midnight and the Prime Minister was sitting along in his office, reading a long memo that was slipping through his brain without leaving the slightest trace of meaning behind.”
  • Editions We Own:

The Novel:  In a lot of ways, this is my favorite of the Harry Potter books.  As I said before, I love back story.  So the more I find about Voldemort, the more fascinated I am.  To me, this one of the reasons to read the books, as opposed to just seeing the films.  Even though I think this is the second best of the films, there is so much that is left out – and my favorite of the Voldemort flashbacks is one that isn’t in the film – the one where he returns to Hogwarts.

But this one is my favorite right from the start as well.  We again get a glimpse outside the third person limited of Harry.  Instead, we get a glimpse of the Prime Minister and we get a real understanding of the way the magical and real worlds interact.  But then we also get the glimpse into the world of Severus Snape (oh god, every time I write his name, I hear him singing in the background and, well, just go here and you’ll understand).  In the next book, this brief glimpse here will help us to understand the personality of one Petunia Dursley.

But this is also the book where the teenagers act most like teenagers – falling in love, or lust, hating and loving each other at the same time.  We also get the tragedy at the end of the book, but set against a wonderfully written battle scene in which these characters really come of age.  Molly might argue in the next book about them all still being kids, but it’s clear here that the primary characters, as well as Luna and Neville have not only grown up, but have really joined the Order.

Of course, there are always some problems.  Surely Remus, with all his insight and awareness, would have noticed the relationship of Snape and Lily and wouldn’t have been convinced by Harry mentioning that Snape hated her because he once called her mudblood.  And did we really need to be dragged through the whole book wondering what Tonks’ problem was?  The film got it right on that one by not playing it as a mystery.  But overall, it is my favorite, as much for the storytelling, as for the depth of characterization that we finally get to see in some of the secondary characters, most notably Draco.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (U.K. Adult)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

The Novel:  Half-Blood Prince is my favorite, but this is really the best of the books.  It brings everything to a complete closure.  Though Rowling could choose to write more books about these characters and this world, the fact is, the books achieve a sense of closure and the Harry Potter series really is complete.  But that’s not what really makes it the best of the books.

First, it is not a kids book.  It’s still not written at a level that is particularly difficult to read, but lots of Fantasy books aren’t.  It no longer talks down at the kids level that can make the first few chapters of Sorceror’s Stone so painful to re-read.  And it’s not about kids anymore.  These kids have grown up and this is a dark book.  It doesn’t belong in the kids section, no matter that every bookstore in the world seems bound and determined to keep it there.

Second, it really shows how deep the world is that Rowling has given us.  The title is infuriating, of course, because there was absolutely no way to know what the hell it was referring to.  But it bears on the heart of all Fantasy books – that mixture of fairy tale and reality and it shows where it owes its debts.  It reminds us that mythology was not just something that people thought of for a good story, but was an attempt to explain certain aspects of the world – and in this case, wizards and witches are no different than us muggles in their desire for an explanation.

Third, it allows its characters to be human and to be mortal.  Characters die – characters we definitely don’t want to see die, but this happens in life.  That it does so makes it no less tragic when it happens in literature, especially to characters we have come to know and love.  But it also allows for depth in those characters – Ron leaves, but as Harry says to him “He must have known you’d always want to come back.”

Fourth, it establishes the true depth and shades of gray of Dumbledore, who had always seemed so boring and self-righteously perfect in the early books.  Even in Order of the Phoenix, when he was talking about how badly he screwed up, it was hard to not see him as the epitome of being perfect.  But this establishes all his faults.  Which are nothing, of course, to Snape.  As Vonnegut says, “We are who we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”  Snape has pretended for a long time, and done what he could, when he could, but also did what he had to with a greater goal in mind.  I always suspected the truth of the end of the sixth book, and it was nice to be proven right.  I thought he had depth in his character and in fact predicted that he would die defending Harry (just like Veronica predicted the redemption of Kreacher).

Of course, the book is not perfect.  There are some internal flaws, as there are bound to  be in a story this large.  Kingsley is on the run for using Voldemort’s name, but he doesn’t say it early on in the book.  Moody also doesn’t say it, while his doppelganger does in the fourth book – if Moody doesn’t say it, wouldn’t the fact that Crouch did make people suspicious?  And Lily’s letter kind of screw up the third book – it seems like they are already in hiding, in which case Pettigrew is the Secret Keeper.  Yet, Bathilda sees them and Dumbledore just borrowed the cloak (we know this, because he only had it a few days before they died) – so they would have had to know that Pettigrew was the Secret Keeper in order to see them.

But that’s all trivial, of course, in comparison with how well Rowling has plotted out the whole thing – from Lily’s line about Dementors “I heard – that awful boy – telling her about them – years ago,” which of course, Harry thinks means James, but really means Snape, to the background of Lily’s shock at Snape insulting her.  We even get the wonderful parallel between Snape headed to Hogwarts and Harry headed there for the first time.  And we are reminded that evil characters can find redemption – that some bonds won’t be broken.

These books will find a way to endure.  The end of the films is not the end of me reading the books, anymore than the release of the last book was or the, hopeful, release of a Harry Potter Encyclopedia from Rowling would be.  They are something to return to, forever.  That is why I love books, love having them, love being able to pull them off the shelf at any given moment and begin again.