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July 23, 2007

Harry Potter: The Boy Who Transcends Cultures

Filed under: Harry Potter,New Broads,students — by maggiec @ 4:31 pm
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I think the only people in the industrialized world who don’t know that the final installment of the Harry Potter series of books came out this past weekend were those who were on vacation somewhere else in the solar system. It’s the biggest hype I’ve ever seen for a book release, and it reminded me a bit of accounts of the hoopla that surrounded the ending of some of Dickens’s serialized novels. In those days, people thronged the the docks of New York, screaming out plot questions to the passengers on ships coming into port from England, where the ending had already been released.

Thanks to technology, this weekend all I had to do was to log on to the Internet and look at European sites to find out how the saga ended. I didn’t. I was stoic. I knew my book would be arriving Saturday morning, and I was determined to just read it for myself and experience it. So I did. I admit it, I sat and read the book pretty much all in one sitting, with a few breaks to do some light housework when my eyes burned and my tush was sore from sitting too long.

No spoilers, I promise. But as the world has come to the end of the Potter saga (and oddly enough, though I love the series, I found the ending highly satisfying. It is done. Adding more just wouldn’t work), I’d just like to say a few words about a book that has been in my life for the past eight years.

I first met Harry when I lived in Geneva, Switzerland. A friend of mine at the American Library there had been a children’s librarian and still kept up with the new offerings. Ellen Beunderman offered many suggestions to me and my son, most of which we absolutely loved, but none stuck like Harry. In the spring of 1999, we read the English version—Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

When we read the first book, which had been out for about a year—this was right before the outbreak of Pottermania—Harry was ten years old, and my son was eight. The story had resonance for my son, who at the age of eight had just moved to his third country. In his new school, he felt out of place, different, alien almost. We immediately went to the library to pick up the second volume, and from then on, we were hooked. We waited with bated breath for each new volume. Reading them together was a tradition, and we read no matter what. When Goblet of Fire came out, we were in Ireland, and we got our copy there. I remember sitting with my ten-year-old son in the lobby of an Irish hotel, reading aloud to him of Cedric Diggory’s final moments, both of us with tears rolling down our cheeks.

Flourish and Blotts

Harry has always been a bond I share most closely with my son, but Harry bonds me to my students as well. No matter where I’ve taught, there have been droves of students who have read Harry. My Taiwanese students and I still share Potter-related e-mails. When The Half Blood Prince came out, one former student told me that the books had become a measure of one’s English ability. The best test of English comprehension was whether one reads the Potter books in English or in Chinese.

I have bought Swedish versions of Harry, French versions of Harry, and even American versions of Harry and shared Hogwarts lore with people all over the world. Yes, American versions. Of course, the major difference between the books is the name of the first volume. In England, it’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (as it should be). In the US, they changed the title to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, afraid that American children wouldn’t know the legend of the Philosopher’s Stone (like English 10 year olds would?).

Ministry decree

Because I have lived in Europe for all these years, I have always read the English editions published by Bloomsbury. For this book, I read the American edition published by Scholastic. At one point, I had to stop reading, lost and confused. Hermione was discussing the Sorcerer’s Stone! That was just wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. That was the most jarring moment for me in the entire book. I know I’m going to have to read the English edition now, to see the differences.

The Harry Potter series has been a phenomenon, there’s no doubt about it. Is the book a literary classic that I will be reading with my grandchildren or grand-nieces and nephews? I don’t know. Some of the books I loved in my childhood bored my son. Some he loved. Only time will tell, and there is no such thing as an instant classic, in spite of what the marketing people tell us. I suspect that my son’s generation will keep the books alive for the next generation, but who can tell? Although I’m a literary critic by training, I don’t want to analyze the books that way here.

I do want to look at how the books have brought joy and happiness to people in countries all over the world. To date, they have been translated into 65 languages (including Hindi, Bengali and Vietnamese—and the first volume is available in Latin and Ancient Greek in case you’re interested) and 320 million copies of the series are in print. On some levels, the series is a simple tale of good versus evil—no different from many of our classic tales. It’s also the story of a boy growing up—when the final book starts, Harry is a mere seven months older than my son. Throughout, all the growing steps that Harry has gone through have been perfectly timed to coincide with the same things happening with my son. Obviously JK Rowling knows kids.

And not just English kids. Harry speaks to so many different cultures that there must be a lesson for us, no? There must be many similarities between children in much of the industrialized world. No, I would say all the world. Sure, there are differences. No one knows that better than I do. But as much as I write about differences, in my life I like to focus on the similarities. Harry has been a bonding experience for so many kids and adults that it gives me hope in a world where there appears to be so few reasons for hope. This summer, my students are a mixed bag of ethnicities, but Friday morning, many of us were united in our fever pitch curiosity about how it would end. Discussing the book (when we should have been doing something else, I admit) made me feel closer to them than I have all summer. But how can we not be close when we share a love?

And that’s one of the reasons that Harry transcends cultures. We all love him and the world created in the books, and where there’s love, there is power, the greatest power imaginable. That’s one lesson Dumbledore would be very happy that I learned. And Voldemort just doesn’t get it.

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1 Comment »

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    Comment by jesica — July 24, 2007 @ 7:13 am |Reply


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