My friend Padric is sophisticated, witty, and urbane, a career bookseller and one of the most well-read people I know. He's equally at home with Oscar Wilde or James Ellroy, Elizabeth George or Jared Diamond. He reads in a wide range of genres and categories, and I defy you to come away from a seller-customer experience with him without an armful of books or, at the very least, a long to-be-read list.
And yet, twice a year, right around February and then again in July, one of us will contact the other, by email or by phone, and the message will be: it's time for Harry. What brings us, readers and booksellers both, back to this children's series, twice a year, every year?
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is the first of the seven Harry Potter books. In it, Harry Potter--an orphan, known in one world as "The Boy Who Lived," known in another as "you" or "boy"--is taken out of his classically awful existence and transported to a magical world. Pretty standard stuff, the basic plot, give or take, of story upon story, year after year, of kid lit. But, something sets these books apart, even in this first installment which--let's face it--is not particularly well-written or even that original. And yet...
We enter the world of Harry Potter with a little prologue, in which we learn that there has been a cataclysmic event: someone terrible and evil is gone and the world is celebrating. But a boy has been left orphaned, and the prologue ends with him being left to grow up in what will almost certainly be unpleasant circumstances.
Ten years later we meet the boy, Harry Potter, skinny and undernourished but still plucky and resilient. He's been made to sleep in the (now iconic) cupboard under the stairs, his birthday is never remembered, and Christmas presents usually consist of a pair of his uncle's used socks. But he remembers things sometimes, and even if he doesn't know if they're dreams or real, he knows there's something more.
His hero's journey (and make no mistake about it, over the seven volumes it becomes a classic Campbellian journey) begins when he is plucked from the constrained, antiseptic world of suburbia and taken to be trained up as a wizard at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. There, he will face tasks and trials, sometimes alone and sometimes with his friends Ron and Hermione beside him.
J.K. Rowling draws from classic British novels of life in public school, such as Tom Brown's Schooldays, and from classic fairy tales (Cinderella, Jack & the Beanstalk spring immediately to mind), and her own reading or instinctive understanding of Joseph Campbell's monomyth of the hero's journey. What makes the Harry Potter series special is not the world that Rowling creates, although that world is certainly wondrous, but rather, her treatment of her characters. What matters to J.K. Rowling is knowledge, bravery, loyalty, friendship, and--most of all--love.
Oscar Wilde once quipped (and I apologize for my awkward paraphrasing) that one would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell. I love Dickens and I love that thought, because there must be something absurd and over the top about any scene capable of such tear-jerking pathos. And this is how I feel about Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. It's funny and sweet and deeply heartfelt, and if some of the sentiments might seem like well-worn platitudes when taken on their surface, dig a little deeper and the truth is there.
And if you can get past Neville's being awarded 10 points for Gryffindor because, "It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends" without both crying and laughing, then you do have a heart of stone.