Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Joy of Reading

When I was a child, I was the kid who you'd find in a corner in any room reading whatever happened to be available. There were certain homes of friends of my parents I particularly liked to visit because of the vast quantities of reading material (full sets of encyclopedias, old National Geographics, "Zoo Doctor") which I didn't have at home. Raiding my grandparents attic, where I found my aunts' and uncles' copies of Nancy Drews, Hardy Boys, Robinson Crusoe, Heidi, and other unabridged classics was the best, because those went home with me. I love books. Books are my friends (who are taking over my home and storage bays.)

Being flat on my back for almost a week gave me an opportunity to do something which would otherwise take a couple of months: rereading the entire Harry Potter series back to back to back. I'm within about 200 pages of finishing the task and I've enjoyed the hell out of it.

I had read the first four books at least twice before, but did not have time to do that with five or six, and, of course, seven just came out. There is so much that Rowling set up in the earlier books that I had forgotten by the time I got to seven. And I read seven in a hurry so as not to let anyone spoil the ending. It isn't about the ending. Ultimately, it is about the journey.

This is very much like watching "The Sixth Sense." Most people I know, including those who are professional writers and who can spot what's going to happen, were taken by surprise by that punch-line. Having seen the film, I couldn't wait to see the DVD to catch the clues I missed the first time out. That's how the Harry Potter books are. By book four, she was already paying off things she set up in book one, but other things don't pay off until book seven.

I missed some of the movement of the Deathly Hallows the first time through. Now I'm getting it. I realized that I had forgotten key scenes in book seven a mere three weeks after reading it the first time. It is amazing how you remember the broad strokes but only selective details.

I've also been watching the films as I finish each book, so now I can see why Michael's been less satisfied by them than I have been. I still think that three through five are really good films, but they are less faithful adaptations than I recalled. One and two remain pretty faithful to the narrative but lack any great spark as films. Chris Columbus is one of the world's worst directors, IMHO, and it is only due to the great skill of British actors that they are able to carry off the film without any important contribution by the director. Films three and five have terrific directors who are able to enhance the material. Four was o.k., but not in his element (I really liked some of his other films a lot more.)

My husband is what he calls an "organic" writer--he doesn't do a lot of planning and the story unravels before him. He doesn't like to plot and relies on his great skill with dialog and emotion to pull off some of his stories. (In all honesty, his stated failure to plot out things over long stretches of time and story isn't entirely true based on some of his talk about long runs he had on certain comic books where he set up things months or years into the future, but he doesn't do charts or story cards or anything like that.) Rowling appears to have done a whole lot more plotting and planning. She seems to work in the way I was told Dickens did--every character's movement through a book was charted out and events were carefully set up. It leads to a very rich reading experience.

There's been much talk about whether or not these books will stand the test of time. I strongly suspect they will because every one who loved these books will remember them and pass them on to their children, grand-children, nieces and nephews. I've done that with books which were childhood favorites of mine, like "The Boxcar Children," "Hans Brinker or The Silver Skates, " or "Swiss Family Robinson," and books I read later such as "The Little Prince," "Lord of the Rings," and "Way Station."

The Potter books have an added bit of sticking power, having been put on film so close to their publication, so even post-literates are familiar with their content. I did not read "Peter Pan" until after I saw the Mary Martin stage production, nor the "Wizard of Oz" until after seeing Judy Garland go down the black and white road the first time it was broadcast on television. There's many a good book I read after seeing what turned out to be really bad Disney-izations of the original material. With a book, you can see your own adaptation in your mind's eye.

Like "The Lord of the Rings," the Harry Potter books are made for critical reading. I wonder if I could convince my son to get his college degree if I told him that he could do his thesis on Harry Potter? I'd probably do better suggesting "Classic Literature as the Basis for Conflict in RPGs."

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