Harry Potter and the Too Many Pages

My kids have a history with the Harry Potter books. They were just the right age… Well, Nick was at first. He read the first three or so – I remember going to the bookstore in Mesquite at midnight and picking up the books as they were released, so he could start in the next morning. He would devour them.

Nick reading Harry Potter.

Nick reading Harry Potter. Is this the first one?

As the years went by, the books came out while we were out of town, in the middle of summer vacation. Once, we knew we would be in Santa Fe, New Mexico. So I reserved a copy at a bookstore there and Nick and I (he was old enough to stay up now – I don’t know which book it was) went down to pick it up. I remember the night – there was some serious nerdery going on in that bookstore – kids in costume, groups, organized events. I also remember one girl that had a friend in St. Louis. Since midnight there was an hour earlier, her friend was reading her the first chapter over her cell phone while she waited.

Nick sort of grew out of the books. He says he hasn’t read the last two. Lee took over… catching up and reading the rest as they came out. We learned the last book would come out while we were driving through West Texas so we reseved a copy in Amarillo. Back in the hotel, he went down to the lobby and stayed up all night (he has always been a night owl) – reading the thing. He said some strange people came into the hotel after three AM, but they left him alone. He finished the whole book about the time we left in the morning.

I had read the first book, gobbled it down quickly not long after it came out but never read any of the others. I saw… some of the films… maybe three of them. I sort of put them out of my mind as the years went by. I thought about reading them – but the massive size and the time it would require put me off.

But now that they are available as ebooks – I decided to read them on my Kindle. Somehow, the invisible digital bytes hiding inside the tiny tablet seemed less onerous than lugging around giant paper tomes and over four thousand pages of the US edition. So I charged through all seven, one after another. It took a few weeks – I have been busy, but with the Kindle I can carry it with me and grab spare minutes here and there. I liked to take it with me on my bicycle and stop to read when I wanted to take a bit of a rest.

So… what did I think about the beloved series?

First, the experience of reading this much in one gulp is overwhelming. I’ve said before that I have to be careful about what I’m reading because it has such a strong effect on my writing. I was pretty much unable to write any fiction while wallowing in the world of Harry Potter. I did squeeze out a couple mediocre tales of children or teens that didn’t fit in anywhere – lonely, confused, and abandoned… not my usual fare.

But it was an interesting experience – being immersed in J. K. Rowling’s world.

Unfortunately, reading like that does show the flaws in the books pretty starkly. Without a gap between the books the repetitive nature of the first six is obvious and tiring. It’s really the same story told six times. The last one breaks the chain… it is a fully realized grown-up novel.

Also, her overuse of creaky literary crutches – hackneyed plot devices – stuck out. The Harry Potter series is the home of the Hallowed MacGuffin. If you don’t know what a MacGuffin is… read this. Every book revolves around some object (or person), sometimes referred to in the title, that have all the characters dancing around like puppets on strings. But, in the end, that object (or person) really has nothing to do with the actual story at all. That makes it a MacGuffin. The later books have multiple MacGuffins.

There’s nothing wrong with a MacGuffin, of course. You could not have detective stories without them. Hitchcock loved them. The Maltese Falcon is the classic MacGuffin… and there’s no better story than that. But Harry Potter overused them – and when you read all the books and they keep hitting you one after another… a bit much.

She also likes to have all her characters stand around at the end of the books and speak directly about what was really going on – giving out plenty of information that was crudely, cruelly and sometimes arbitrarily withheld from the reader up until then.

And then there’s the Pensieve. Every writer struggles with backstory and point of view. In the Harry Potter books the point of view is held tightly to the hero (with the exception of a prolog or afterward here or there) and she needed a way to bring in information that wasn’t otherwise available to Harry, either by time, space, or the needs of the plot.

So, invent a Pensieve – basically a big bucket – and whenever you need to bring in information that Harry isn’t privy to, have the hero stick his head into the bucket – he falls in, and exactly what you need to have the story go forward (and nothing more) is delivered… by magic.

I shouldn’t complain – it works – but it’s a bit obvious, awkward, and lazy.

Still, though, after all the creaky prose and obvious plot devices it is one hell of a story. Especially when it’s read in one enormous gulp – like a professional eater and a mountain of hot dogs – the world of Harry Potter is irresistible and addictive. You can’t stop reading.

There is plenty there to strike a chord, plenty more to think about. It’s easy to see how it has sold so many copies and become such a touchstone for so many people of several different generations.

I’m just glad I’m done so I can get back to my own pitiful little world.