A couple of days ago marked the anniversary of the publication of the 1st Harry Potter novel in 1997. And I began "serializing" a speech I made at Western Reserve Academy about my experiences reading HP. In that first installment I wrote about how I'm an obsessive reader of an author's complete works; in the second, about other authors’ complete works I’d read—especially Anthony Trollope; in the third, about hat was it that made me cave, that made me read all of Potter? Reminder; I delivered this speech at Western Reserve Academy on May 4, 2012.
Next day I bought the books. And by the first of August, as I’ve already said, I’d read the entire Potter-saga.
And I was weeping.
Crying like a sissy. Like grandson Logan seeing a costumed lunatic on stilts.
The whole damn thing just got to me.
Yes, the stories are derivative—what fantasy novels aren’t? And, yes, Rowling often tells us more than we want or maybe even need to know. But—and here I believe is her greatest asset as a writer for young readers—she tells the truth. By the time children can read, and surely by the time they have advanced very far in school, they know this world is not always a good place. They know they are sometimes hurt by people who love them; they know they can’t trust everyone, even people in their own homes; they know that people have secrets; they know that “bad” people sometimes do good things, that “good” people sometimes do bad ones. They know the meaning of fear. They know that if they tell the truth and say what they believe, they will probably suffer. They know that if they are not like everyone else, they will suffer. They know that no matter what they do, they will suffer. They know that cheaters can win. That liars can get away with it. Yet they also know that it’s still better to be on the right side, no matter what. Better to battle Voldemort and be scared and scarred than to join him and be destroyed.
This is the world whose geography J. K. Rowling charts in the Harry Potter books. It is a fantasy world more real than what exists in many “realistic” novels—or certainly on “reality television.” It is a world that children live in. And they recognize it immediately. I know I did.
On the night of Monday, October 22, 2007, almost exactly three months after I polished off Potter, I savor, in bed, the last sentence of Trollope’s last, unfinished novel, The Landleaguers, a bit of dialogue. A man says: … they don’t lave a por boy any pace.
And that’s it. And Anthony Trollope’s last published word … peace.
I get out of bed, walk over to the study of my wife, who is writing, eyes locked on her screen. I hold The Landleaguers before me, fanning its pages. Joyce hears, turns, sees me and the book. Sees the tears in my eyes. She knows that look. She’s seen it before. And, months (years?) hence, I hope she’ll see it again.
Perhaps she will For now rising near my bed is a new pile—a tower of Richard Powers’ novels. His first? 1985: Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance.
As I finger that first volume, whose cover shows an old photograph of three young farmers in their dark ill-fitting suits walking down a country road, the title makes me think of the very end of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. A wedding is about to commence—weddings often mark the end of Shakespeare’s comedies, a device still popular—and the happy bridegroom, Benedick, decides he wants to dance before the service. And so he cries out: Strike up, pipers!
And then everyone just dances and dances and dances …
**Note: I read several of Powers' novels (which I loved), then got sidetracked and was reading all of John O'Hara ... I'll get back to RP, though!