Sunday, July 22, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling

Having stolen the book from my sister's car late last night (about 10), I set out to read the last and final installment of the Harry Potter saga in one almost uninterrupted sitting. Not counting a number of bathroom breaks occasioned by a number of trips to the coffee-maker, I succeeded, finishing at about 7 this morning. (And promptly slept until 5; I had also just driven home from Washington, DC yesterday.)

Which is not to brag—I imagine that others read it even faster (I am not a particularly quick reader), and others will say that such speed demonstrates all too well the disposability and pulpiness of the Potter books.

Dwelling comfortably among the latter camp, I imagine, would be Ron Charles, a book critic for the Washington Post, whose article "Harry Potter and the Death of Reading" my friend Tyson sent me a couple of days ago.

Charles gestures ominously at the familiar portents of reading's demise in America—this poll and that study all saying the same thing—Americans aren't reading as much as they used to, and most of what is being read are mega-blockbusters from the same silly authors (King, Grisham, Evanovich, Patterson, et al.). Bringing in a Benjaminian-flavored critique, Charles also decries the Imperius-Curse type grip of the nearly-unique situation which America (and much of the world) finds itself in at this moment:
Perhaps submerging the world in an orgy of marketing hysteria doesn't encourage the kind of contemplation, independence and solitude that real engagement with books demands -- and rewards. Consider that, with the release of each new volume, Rowling's readers have been driven not only into greater fits of enthusiasm but into more precise synchronization with one another. Through a marvel of modern publishing, advertising and distribution, millions of people will receive or buy "The Deathly Hallows" on a single day. There's something thrilling about that sort of unity, except that it has almost nothing to do with the unique pleasures of reading a novel: that increasingly rare opportunity to step out of sync with the world, to experience something intimate and private, the sense that you and an author are conspiring for a few hours to experience a place by yourselves -- without a movie version or a set of action figures. Through no fault of Rowling's, Potter mania nonetheless trains children and adults to expect the roar of the coliseum, a mass-media experience that no other novel can possibly provide.
Sorry, that was a lengthy quote, but an important one, I think, for Charles's criticism does make a great deal of sense, and his desire to "step out of sync with the world, to experience something intimate and private" is one I (and a number of my friends) share quite keenly. I myself have been wracking my brains for the past couple of weeks to find a financially viable way to Thoreau-ly disassociate myself from society for a number of months while I ingest the alarming number of novels I can't stand not having read.

But I think there are also a number of problems with Charles's complaint, and they go beyond the common and well-recognized paradoxical twins of solipsism and sociability which have longed spurred in conflicting measure the desire to read. For sociability is a large part of the reading experience as well, even if Charles ignores it—we do read to experience things privately, but we also deeply desire the opportunity to process these private experiences socially. That is why we have critics like Mr. Charles in the first place. Whether or not Charles's critique that the paroxysmic sociability attending the release of a Potter book has nothing to do with reading is another matter, and one that gets to the heart of my objections with Charles's article.

Like almost everyone else who has ever thought much about literature, Charles assumes that the novel is intimately and quite likely inextricably linked to the experience of being an individual—i.e., a solitary mind capable of private and unique experiences, of contemplation, of solitude, of being "out of sync" with the rest of the world. There are dozens of books—many of them deeply insightful—examining this link between the novel and the individual. But there are also dozens of novels (including the first, Don Quixote) which warn against taking this link too seriously, or rather too exclusively, too dogmatically, even, one might say, too religiously. The point of discontinuity between fiction and reality is a problematic one, these novels say, and it grows more problematic the more we identify individuality with being "out of sync" with the rest of the world.

I have just stepped off a very steep ravine into worlds of theory the likes of which I cannot hope to fathom and into which, I must say, I was not prepared to venture when I set out to answer what bothered me about Charles's article. Clearly, the questions of identity, of difference, of fictionality, of individuality, of (for god's sake!) reality are thorny ones which have up-ended more serious efforts than this blog post.

To say a few words about the last Potter novel: from the standpoint of someone who dearly loved the series, it's about as perfect as one can ask; Rowling is masterful in the way she deploys so many loose ends from the previous books, the way she finds ways to make her themes meaningful plot elements, the way that she probes at certain problems that are much more insidious than Voldemort. While I resent the ending, I do so for some ideological reasons which are rather unimportant to the quality of the work. I realize that there are some compelling criticisms of Rowling's work (Charles, in fact, litanizes them: "the repetitive plots, the static characters, the pedestrian prose, the wit-free tone, the derivative themes"), I think they are invalid; Charles and his lot are reviewing the Potter books like they're Middlemarch—which, I think, is incredibly foolish.

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