Why Read Harry Potter?

Interesting review/essay on Harry Potter by Alan Jacobs posted at Christianity Today’s Books and Culture. Jacobs, professor of English at Wheaton College and author of The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis, addresses a question many literary types have asked themselves:

Why this excitement? Why would a middle-aged man-who also happens to be a professor of literature-get so worked up about a series of books for young people? Indeed, why do so many millions of people get similarly worked up, as they have about no other books? There is no real answer to this question, though every time another book in the series is released the newspapers of the world fill with speculations. The closest we can come to an answer is to note that J. K. Rowling does three things exceptionally well: first, she creates characters readers really care about-not just Harry but also Ron, Hermione, Hagrid, Dumbledore, Neville, etc.-usually because they possess some admirable trait (kindness, or courage, or wisdom) but are also somehow vulnerable; second, she writes suspenseful plots, so that you really want to know how it’s all going to come out; and third, she creates a whole imaginative world that people love to inhabit, even after they already know what happens in the stories. Many writers can do one of those things; a few can do two; hardly any can achieve all three. (Tolkien is one of them, which is why he also, though a very different and much greater writer than Rowling, is equally beloved.) It’s the combination that makes her special.

Jacobs understands that this isn’t literature (with a capital L), but feels that is not the point:

Critics who complain that Rowling’s writing style is pedestrian or cliche-laden-Harold Bloom being prominent among them-therefore miss the point. She is certainly not much of a stylist, she does indeed fall sometimes into cliche, and in fact a key moment in the new volume, one meant to be deeply moving, is marred by the kind of grammatical error that makes an English teacher like me grind his teeth and mutter about the decline in the professional skills of editors. But the last thing I want when I’m reading a Harry Potter book is to pause and admire the felicity of the diction. This ain’t Emily Dickinson, after all. And I found that grammatically erroneous passage deeply moving anyway because I cared about the characters involved, I cared about the story, I cared about the world.

If you are a fan of Harry Potter you’ll want to read the rest of the essay as Professor Jacobs insghtfully discusses the details and implications of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

BTW, Jacobs is a writer I have long admired and his Narnia book is on my TBR list. I hope to read the Chronicles of Narnia in anticipation of the movie.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

1 Comment

  1. When I first started reading Harry Potter – and it was a few months before Harry was all the rage – I felt self-conscious about reading a “children’s book”. I have friends who still refuse to read one because they think it is beneath them.


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