Sometimes I feel like just one more sheep when I admit that the Harry Potter books are among my favorite, possibly my absolute favorite, books of all time. I am certainly not embarrassed to admit this—anyone who has read the series knows that all the hype is well deserved. And yet, as something of a nonconformist, I sometimes wish that my favorite book was an esoteric French novel or an ancient Chinese tome. My taste in television, music, and movies may not be absolutely obscure, but it is at least a little quirky. There is nothing quirky about my love for Harry Potter. Everyone enjoys J.K. Rowling’s masterworks (naysayers and better-nonconformists-than-me aside).
I have been reading the Harry Potter books since seventh grade. Harry, Ron, and Hermione have been close to my heart for more than half of my life. At the time I first started reading, the first three books were all that had been published. If I recall correctly, I read them four times each. I don’t remember how long I had to wait for The Goblet of Fire, but I do vividly remember getting it on the Saturday it came out, opening it at 8 PM, and finishing at 10 AM the next morning, just in time to go to church at 11 AM (I do not, as one might expect, recall that church meeting at all).
Ever since I fell in love with the first three books all those years ago, I have looked forward to the entire series being published. Not because of a desire for closure (I want it to go on forever!), but because of a long time plan to read the series from beginning to end, with no long waits in between books. Last night, I finished The Deathly Hallows. It took me 23 days to get through all seven books: not a record, I’m sure, but plenty respectable considering my many other interests and distractions.
So now, without further ado, I will launch into my rankings of the books. I’m going to list them from most superior to least superior, and give some comments on each book.
Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince – Year Six
The series truly hit its stride with this masterpiece. Easily my favorite book among the seven, Rowling balances darkness and light with absolute mastery. Getting to know Dumbledore throughout the book was like a Christmas present. And then there was the cave. Wow. Just wow. Incidentally, I still trusted Snape after this book, but I couldn’t figure out the circumstances in which he was still Dumbledore’s man.
Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallow – Year Seven
What a surprise that Harry wasn’t going back to school! All along, you figured he would be at Hogwarts until the end of the series, so the entire setting of this book was a twist. I liked this one so much more the second time. I was not disappointed when I read it shortly after its release, but I was not absolutely gushing over it. For some reason, I am feeling in a gushy mood this second time.
The most commonly heard complaint about the book is the long section in the middle where Harry, Ron, and Hermione are fighting continuously and not really doing anything. I thought this portion of the book ran a little long, but it illustrated how Voldemort was tearing families, friendships, and communities apart just as much through fear and confusion as through murder and torture. No, my main complaint about the book is the epilogue. While it is nice to see that everyone lived happily ever after, what I really wanted to know was what everyone did for a living. Besides this disappointment, the epilogue just didn’t move me.
Snape was indeed a good guy, and not only does Rowling make that undoubtedly clear, but she inspires sympathy for him (and to a lesser extent, Draco) that one never expected to have. All of a sudden, Snape is one of the biggest heroes in the series: after Dumbledore dies, no one knows that he is still opposing Voldemort. There is simply nothing to gain by continuing to work against the Dark Lord, but Snape does it anyway.
Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire – Year Four
I could have easily put The Prisoner of Azkaban here, but I didn’t for a few reasons. One is purely my love of reading: GoF offers twice as many pages as PoA. Another is the scene in the graveyard. The return of Voldemort was an epic turning point in the series and, as a reader, there was no turning back after this book.
Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban – Year Three
The anomaly of the series, PoA is the one book that doesn’t feature Voldemort as the principle villain. Expertly written, but always painful to read, as things go wrong in just about every way they can. No one could have realized it until Book Four, but Pettigrew getting away was the turning point in the story.
Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone – Year One
This book introduced us to the world of wizards. The first visit to Diagon Alley will always live in my heart as a special memory, even though I only participated vicariously.
Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets – Year Two
The only reason this book is this low in my rankings is because the other books were so good. There’s nothing really wrong with CoS, it just has tough competition. Note the expert storytelling in that the climax of this book became of the utmost importance four books later.
Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix – Year Five
I will always be slightly traumatized that this, clearly the worst book of the series, is 200 pages longer than the next book, the best in the series. The main things I didn’t like about the book: lack of Dumbledore, way too much Umbridge, boring giant storyline, and more than anything else, the lack of Voldemort. At the end of the fourth book, I couldn’t wait until the epic battles of good versus evil. We still get battles of good versus evil, but they are psychological battles of good Harry versus evil Umbridge.
To me, Umbridge is second only to Voldemort as principle villain in the series. Book Seven shows us that she only gets worse, so why does she never get her comeuppance? So she spent some time being tortured (or whatever) by the centaurs. She doesn’t appear to have been permanently scarred by that experience, and she goes on to do so much bad to so many people, under the guise of being the “good guy.” This makes her possibly worse than Voldemort, and the fact that she neither redeems herself nor receives a punishment is the biggest disappointment of the entire series for me. Then again, the fact that I hate her so much might just be an indication of how well Rowling wrote her character. All I can say is that this book should have been 500 pages, and 175 pages should have been added to each of the subsequent books to make up for it.
I really would like to know what makes these books so enthralling. I have read a lot of books in my life. I am lucky to have diverse interests and book-cover-judging skills that allow me to say that I have rarely read a book that I have not liked in some way. I finish 99 percent of the books I begin reading, and almost always have good things to say about them once they are concluded. So what makes Harry Potter so special? Is it the writing, the story, the characters, or something else? I have some thoughts on the matter, and though one would be better served just going and reading The Sorcerer’s Stone (which will surely take less time than reading my musings), I am going to address at least some of these thoughts.
Essentially, Harry has no life until the first book—his abuse and neglect at the hands of the Dursleys makes it clear that his was an unremarkable life. So from age 10 to 18 (give or take a few months), we live the parts of Harry’s life that matter right along with him. He knows nothing of his parents, and what he learns, we learn. He knows nothing of the world from which he comes, so we are given the treat of discovering that world with him. When it comes right down to it, he is thrust into such a different life that none of his past experiences matter. We know everything about this character there is to know because we experience everything right alongside him. This is significant.
One of the reasons that Rowling’s books are so great is that she manages to find a balance between story arcs within the books and story arcs linking the books. I am curious just how much she had planned when she first started writing. Did she know, for example, that the diary from Book Two would be revealed as a horcrux as we approached the conclusion of the series? Ultimately, it does not matter whether she had a plan or not. What matters is how well she fit things together. If she had opted out of the epilogue in the seventh book, I could say that she gave us answers for everything that truly mattered and left everything else open ended enough to let us enjoy our imaginations. Even with the epilogue, it was still a completely satisfying ending without feeling like we were being spoon fed a conclusion. (A recent series finale of a TV show—rhymes with Cost—took the exact opposite approach: answer none of the questions that matter, and spoon feed us an ending that doesn’t particularly make us think).
Continuing to speak to the series as a whole, Rowling does a fantastic job of avoiding the pit into which authors of other series fall: the form written book. I have read plenty of these series in my time, and they can be entertaining. But by the third Redwall book I read, I knew what was going to happen in each of the subsequent books (I read about a dozen of them from elementary through high school). Harry Potter keeps you on your toes the entire time. Yes, there is a certain deus ex machina element to the series and the ways in which Harry and company get out of trouble often seem contrived. Nevertheless, we are in a world of magic, so anything can happen.
My one complaint about this world of magic is the very primitive technology that wizards and witches use. One thing that comes to mind is the use of quills for writing. Why? It is completely pointless. Use ballpoint pens, magic computers, or just write with your mind. Or at least have quills that have magically endless sources of ink, rather than needing to keep ink on hand! You start to think, as the series goes on, that the wizarding world has it so much easier than the muggle world. But how much easier is typing an essay than writing one by hand? Or using separate sheets of paper rather than rolls of parchment? It adds to the level of mystique the world holds, but it is impractical. And with people like Dumbledore and Hermione around, you would think that some people, at least, would sway toward practicality. Still, this is a small complaint, and one that didn’t bother me while reading the books. Only in retrospect do I really consider this so strange.
Both times I have finished The Deathly Hallows, I have felt a certain emptiness after the final sentence of the book. Over the years, I was always sad to finish each book as it was published, but this is different. The series has been concluded. There is nothing to which I can look forward. The upcoming movies are not a comfort—they had been okay until The Half-Blood Prince, which absolutely ruined my favorite book. No, the movies are entertaining, but they are hardly worth my excitement. Harry, Ron, and Hermione have been my friends for 13 years, and now they are effectively dead. Selective amnesia would be most welcome every couple of years—let me forget the books completely and get lost in the word all over again.
It is unlikely that J.K. Rowling will ever write anything more about Harry directly, but I find it hard to believe she will not return to the world of magic[al writing]. Then again, she may want to expand her horizons and, after living in luxury for a few years, she may return to the keyboard only to create a new and different world. I am sure it will be entertaining, but I doubt she could ever recreate the phenomenon she created with Harry Potter. The time line in the epilogue indicates that there are five to six years between the end of Book Seven and the birth of Ginny’s and Hermione’s children. Do we want to rejoin Harry in his life? Or perhaps we might enjoy a series about James, Albus, Lily, Rose, and Hugo at Hogwarts? Personally, I think I would prefer a prequel series. Dumbledore’s life would be great. It would also be nice to learn about the early lives of Lily and James Sr. or some of the Hogwarts teachers. She could also take a much different route and give us a story about Voldemort’s life, or the lives of other dark wizards. If J.K. Rowling does write more books using the characters from the series, what would you most like to see?