The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of
The New
Canon
, Ted Gioia reviews
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's
Stone
 by J.K. Rowling.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
by J.K. Rowling

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

One might think it unnecessary to make a case for this book.  After
all, it did more for the cause of reading than any novel of the last
century.  It gave an enormous boost to the purveyors of books far
and wide, launching a series that has sold more than 400 million
copies to date.  It has inspired other writers to publish more than
300,000 (no, I am not kidding) Harry Potter-inspired stories of
their own in various on-line forums.  It has
enchanted readers, young and old, and will
certainly continue to do so for many
generations to come.

In short, if you had to place a wager on the
one book published in your lifetime that
will still be widely read a century from now,
this is where all the smart money would go.
It’s a
no brainer. Today’s children will read
it to their own children and grandchildren,
who in turn . . . Well, you get the idea.

Yet when I suggested in an
article that J.K.
Rowling might be as deserving of a prestigious literary award as,
say, Doris Lessing, I was subjected to some serious eyebrow-
raising.  Of course, we will see if Lessing’s work in speculative
fiction,
Canopus in Argos: Archives, is still in print in a hundred
years.  The fact that it is out of print now, only a little more than
year after Lessing was honored with the Nobel, is not an
encouraging sign.  No smart money on that horse, my friends.

Now
Harold Bloom will tell you that "Rowling's mind is so
governed by clichés and dead metaphors that she has no other
style of writing."  
A.S. Byatt has suggested that the Harry Potter
books were written for “people whose imaginative lives are
confined to TV cartoons."  Given J.K. Rowling’s apparent
ineptitude, one wonders why these books have become so much
more cherished than, say,
The Flintstones or those manga
paperbacks remaindered in stacks down at Barnes & Noble.  Could
it be that J.K. Rowling knows something that Professor Bloom
doesn’t?  Hmm, can I wager on that one too?

Anyone who has spent some time with the Harry Potter books will
quickly discover why these works are so appealing.  I have written
elsewhere that the most successful works of speculative fiction are
similar to what anthropologist Clifford Geertz described in his
influential 1973 work
The Interpretation of Cultures as “thick
description” ethnography.  While the “thin description” focuses
solely on one aspect of a culture, the “thick description” aims
more ambitiously to convey the context as well.

In conventional realistic novels, this context is often fairly
straightforward.  It is the external world, and all its trappings.  The
author does not need to specify it in all its richness, since this
contextual knowledge is brought by the reader to the act of
reading.  But for writers of conceptual fiction, who tinker with our
sense of reality and exercise the license of fantasy, the context is
of paramount importance.  The majesty of an endeavor on the
scale of Rowling’s project—as with similar imaginative
constructions of Narnia, Middle-earth, Dune, etc.—is the suchness
of this context, and its capability to astonish and delight us.  This
is more than the invention of a story; it is nothing less than the
construction of a universe.

How difficult is it for a writer to do this?  Building a vivid and
enchanting fantasy world from scratch, a Hogwarts or a Middle-
earth, is a massive undertaking, much more challenging, I would
argue, than writing crisp dialogue or creating an engaging
character.  Readers understand this, even if
Yale academics miss
the point. This is why any list of the most popular novels of the
last century is dominated by precisely these “thick description”
works of imaginative fiction.

But don’t jump to the conclusion that Rowling is weak on
character development, pacing or the other more traditional
components of the novelist’s craft.  She has peopled her magical
universe with some of the most striking characters of
contemporary fiction.  And I’m not just talking about Harry Potter
and his two chums, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley.  The
secondary characters are also remarkably well constructed.  Even
in these long tomes, Rowling can hardly find enough time on
center stage for all her memorable role players.  While reading
these books, I always find myself wanting more of Snape and
Malfoy, two of the most perfectly realized villains I have
encountered. Hagrid is compelling, as is Dumbledore, and a dozen
or more of the lower profile cast members.  Even a ghost like
Peeves has more personality and makes a bigger presence on the
page than those characters in other books who have the benefit of
a fully functional non-transparent body.

These are not "realistic" characters in the conventional sense.
They are compelling figures, nonetheless.  Recall that the
characters one finds in Dickens and Proust—to cite two revered
predecessors—are hardly more realistic.  Rowling, like Dickens,
creates artfully conceived "types" who are larger than life.  They
are decidedly not like your neighbors next door, nor would you
want them to be.  By exaggerating certain qualities and hiding
others, Rowling enhances the drama and vibrancy of her
narratives.

In series books, the most imaginative energy is typically evident in
the first volume.  This is where the new universe comes to life (or
fails to do so, as the case may be).  If everything clicks in book
one, half of the work for the sequels is already finished. This is
true for Rowling as it was for
Frank Herbert or C.S. Lewis or J. R.
R. Tolkien.  Once she had created Hogwarts and its denizens, the
magical universe that surrounds it, and above all the charismatic
Mr. Harry Potter & company, J.K. Rowling could have given us
countless stories with these same chess pieces.  For this reason, I
give special marks to
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in its original British
title), the work that set this whole enterprise in motion.

Rowling has blessed us with seven Harry Potter novels (although
her fans have added, as noted above, several hundred thousand
other related tales), and there is no better place to start in
exploring her richly inspired alternative world than this opening
volume in the series. If
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is
not a classic, than the term hardly has a legitimate meaning. This is
one of those books that is meant to be enjoyed and shared.  I read
this book aloud to my son when he was five years old, and I
daresay that I was as enchanted as he was by Rowling’s story. We
went on to read the rest of the series together.  I suspect he will
have the same joy sharing these books with his own children.  In
the often isolating and esoteric world of the modern novel, this
sense of sharing and community is in itself remarkable.  But no
less remarkable—and canonical—than what J.K. Rowling has
conjured out of her head.
The New Canon
The Best in Fiction Since 1985
The New Canon

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More to come


Recommended Links:

Great Books Guide
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Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's personal web site
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American Fiction Notes
LA Review of Books
The Big Read
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The Elegant Variation
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The Millions
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