Saturday, July 21, 2007

Harry Potter Is Dead

…well, not really. From what I can gather from reviews, at the end of Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows, the eponymous wizard-boy is simply forced to grow up and lead a normal life. Evil vanquished--then the wife, the kids, the house. So he lives on. But we in the book business are finished with him. After tonight, he’s dead to us. And I, for one, could not be happier.

It’s funny—I’ve worked at bookstores throughout the ten year run of this series, but I’ve only had to work at release parties for the past two. It didn’t occur to anyone to keep a store open until midnight to sell a children’s book until Rowling’s fourth magical doorstop was released in 2000, and I managed to avoid having anything to with that event or the following one. But for volumes six and seven I’ve been unavoidably trapped at Borders #653 here in Toledo, giving up a Friday night to this thing that people who get paid to write about books invariably refer to as a Phenomenon. I just got back from The Last Harry Potter Party Ever, which is why I’m writing at a quarter to four in the morning, it was a dispiriting, exasperating experience, and I demand that everyone pity me.

You want to appreciate it; to see the fun in it. I do, a little. It’s nice to be able to sell somebody something they really want, and I got to do a lot of that tonight. All the shakingly eager kids are kind of endearing, if a little bit intense. But for some of the kids, and nearly all of the parents, the whole thing is clearly just another joyless, grubby pop-cultural hoop to be jumped through. You have to take the kids to see Shrek. You have to take them to a Mud Hens game, whether you know or care anything about baseball. And you have to buy them the Harry Potter book, whether it would ever have occurred to you to buy a book before the year 2000 or not. So many of them were appalled to realize that they would have to wait in line for an hour, apparently unable to work through the simple chain of reasoning: I am here at midnight because for whatever reason this book is a Big Deal. Therefore, many other people will be doing the same thing. This book should NOT be easy to get, because it is SO AWESOME. That is why we are all here. They couldn’t understand, probably because they don’t normally go to bookstores, that bookstores don’t normally have and aren’t really designed to handle a thousand customers at once, and things can’t really be expected to run with theme-park like precision. There was a lot of whining.

Pity me, I say!

And I’ve just been stunned from the beginning at the overwhelmingly arbitrary nature of this whole thing we’ve just lived through. At the end of the day, why these books? To the kids who grew up with them, they must have seemed like a one-of-a-kind life-altering thing that had dropped out of the skies one day in 1997—but there were so many adolescent fantasy novels being written, in 1997 and in every year before or since, and I really haven’t ever been able to believe that it was anything but dumb herd instinct that turned Rowling’s series into this monumental, generational thing. Into, yes, a Phenomenon.

I’m sure they’re not bad. That’s all I can say. I’ve seen them praised many times for being wildly inventive and involving. I’ve never seen anybody try to praise them as art. From the little I’ve seen, Rowling’s prose is workmanlike at best, and they seem just as derivative in theme as pretty much every other fantasy novel since Tolkien. When people ask me if I’ve read them, just because I, you know, work in a bookstore, I want to look at them like they’re crazy. Don’t they have any idea how many grown-up novels are published every month that I want to read and never will because I’ll never have time? I’m going to read eight-hundred page tomes about Wizard Boarding School?

As for them creating a generation of readers, I’m afraid that all they’ve done is create a generation of readers of bad books. I can guess this from my own bitter experience. I love The Lord of the Rings. I do. As an adult reader, I can see everything that’s silly and retrograde about it, but its dazzling level of invention and its author’s unembarrassed love for his own linguistic games had an enormous effect on me and on my literary sensibility in the long term. But in the short term, as an adolescent, it just made me want to read a whole lot of crappy imitations of The Lord of the Rings, of which there were many in the nineteen-eighties, and of which there are more all the time. The same thing will happen with these kids today—and Rowling is no Tolkien.

The last word on this subject was spoken some years ago, by Harold Bloom, of all people. In many ways he’s an absurd old crank, but I saw him on Charlie Rose once, and I’ll always remember it. At one point in the interview, he had his eyes closed as he leaned contentedly back in his chair and recited the last ten lines or so of Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” and it made me want to give him a big hug. (“We are not now that strength which in old days / moved earth and heaven…”) And then Rose, trying to stick up for the present in the face of Bloom’s "Decline and Fall of Everything" rhetoric, mentioned the whole Phenomenon, and how it was making all these young folks read ever so many books instead of playing with their Pokemon or their cellphones or whatever. Bloom just sighed a huge Falstaffian sigh, and intoned, “…but that’s not literature, Charles.” Right on, Harold.

4 comments:

Maggie said...

Hey Matt!

Having spent last Friday evening working in my friendly neighborhood Barnes and Noble for the dreaded Harry Potter party, I entirely understand that dispirited, exasperating feeling you get after dealing with cranky children crashing from their sugar highs and their even crankier parents.

However, I’ve just finished reading the seventh book, and (at the risk of sounding like an enormous dork), I’ve read all the preceding books as well, and I do feel that there are many good things about the Harry Potter series. I reluctantly started reading the series when I was 12 (I was a bit of a book snob even then), and over the years I’ve come to feel that Rowling actually does have a pretty good handle on a number of things, one of which being the concept of the ongoing and seemingly insurmountable process of a child/teenager dealing with grief. Also, I think that what is really appealing about the series is the way there is something in the main characters that mostly everyone can relate to, and even though Rowling is no Tolkein, I still think it’s great that these books make reading “cool” for a bunch of kids who’ve been spoon-fed Teletubbies and Xbox games for most of their young lives. And who knows, maybe some of the little kids reading Harry Potter now will move onto bigger and better literary things! We can hope, right?

david james keaton said...
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david james keaton said...
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david james keaton said...

this comment delete button is fun. mine doesn't have that. you thought you had more comments didn't you? sucka MC!

post something before Rocky XXXXIV leaves theaters.

did you see that Simpson movie? of course you did. how was it? some Simpson fanatic was talking about it at the bar. he said, "well, it's, like, a really good season ____ episode." i don't remember the number. i didn't have the tools to really be part of that discussion as all i remember is the one with Homer making powerbars. it was the first movie discussion that was too advanced for me. i felt like i'd wandered into the cockpit of a plane. i actually jumped into a Le Jette debate to relax.

however! new Cronenberg movie! i HAVE heard of her. i mean, him.

i just heard a rap song that said "Salem's Lot is my vacation spot." he wins