Readings On J.K. Rowling, edited by Gary Wiener
It is easy to see why this book exists. Although the book was written and published while only three of the seven books in the Harry Potter series had been released, long before the series was done, much less the time that is required to know whether the immensely popular series  qualifies as a literary classic, the existence of this book is evidence of the contentious nature of the series within literary culture as a whole. The book, in its partisan and fragmented way, deals with a variety of worthwhile questions that seek to account for the popularity of the series within the wider public, which shows no sign of stopping long after the original books of the series have stopped being written, with eight successful movies (a ninth, based on a spin-off minor book by the author, is coming out soon), the success of Pottermore, and continued mass culture interest in amusement parks and the culture of the novel series. This book is testament to the fact that even before the books stopped being written, it was necessary already to fight for its place in history and culture.
Coming it under 150 pages, this book is not lengthy and it is filled with essays written by literary figures, some of them important within the larger cultural community, and many of whom have personal axes to grind or points to score when arguing for or against the legitimacy of Harry Potter. The first chapter of the book consists of various essays on J.K. Rowling and her work, including a biographical essay on the authoress, a brief history of the series tradition of novels, where this book clearly belongs to more literary series as opposed to lower forms of series novels, and a discussion of the allusive and alliterative language of the first three novels. The second chapter examines the place of the Harry Potter novels within literature, examining questions of the applicability of the novel to real life, questions of genre (British fantasy and light fairy tale), claims that the novels are a reflection of neo-stoic philosophy in the face of a cultural crisis, as well as the sources of the novel in various genres that Rowling skillfully mixes together. The third and final chapter of the book contains various essays that show the diverse critical response to the novel series, including a for or against view of the series being a classic (for: Charles Tyalor, against: Harold Bloom, who only read the first novel and judged it as cliché-ridden from that book alone), for or against its suitability for children (against: Richard Abanes, an evangelical Christian, for: Judy Blume, a notable children’s novelist in her own right), as well as its suitability for readers other than children (against: New York Times columnist William Safire, who considers the series overrated and not up to the par of classic children’s literature like Huckleberry Finn and Alice in Wonderland, and for: Alison Lurie, who compares the series to the British children’s literature of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis). After this comes a welcome collection of readings for future research, which many readers will wish to examine for themselves.
The editor of this work does a skillful job at presenting a variety of different perspectives and leaving the reader free to make his or her own decisions about the worth of Rowling and her work. All of the writers show themselves as writing at a disadvantage, or at least a bit prematurely, because the series was not even half-complete when the book was written, although with retrospect it appears that those critics who only read the first novel of the series and thought it light and fluffy failed to give credit to the more serious and darker tone of the last four novels in particular. Those writers who praised Rowling for her middle class background as well as her empathy for the underdog and for her psychological realism spotted a great deal of the larger context of the series as a whole and came to reasonably sound conclusions. It is still too early to tell whether the books are classics or deserve to be. The fact that the Harry Potter phenomenon has lasted for almost two decades at this point suggests that it is likely to have some legs and that Rowling will remain a relevant writer in future generations, not least because of how her novels serve as a time capsule for the millenarian fears and concerns of its generation, and the book’s lineal descent from other Christian fantasy writers. The fact that the book is capable of being mined for serious intellectual and moral depth by readers  suggests that it has depth that has not been fully credited by many critics who are content to view childhood and children’s literature as beneath the dignity of serious adult reading, a sign that many adults do not understand just how serious childhood and children’s literature can be for many people. Even if this book is premature, its existence is a sign that J.K. Rowling has written a series that will likely remain of future relevance to literary scholars and social critics for years to come, whether they like it or not.
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