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Festive fairy tale

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I walked over to the celebration for the arrival of the latest Harry Potter book at A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books in San Francisco. It had started about 9 pm and I got there a bit after 10. There was a trivia quiz going on (which was followed by a magic show) and the bookstore was full of kids and adults (many dressed up). A table with Harry’s favorite cake and candy was in the back.

I have way too many books I already own I need to read (and I’m broke), so I tried not to look at books I’d be tempted to buy. I sat and read the interview with Liz Phair in the June issue of Believer magazine since it isn’t online (though check out the idea share). A bit after 11 pm, Word for Word did a performance of chapter 33 and 34 from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth book (I went to the unveiling for it in 2000 at a Chicago Borders which was much less creative). They do a unique form of theater which is a cross between a drama and a reading which uses every word of the text.

When it was over people were lined up to get their copy of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The booksellers were unstacking the pile of sealed boxes of books. I thought about sticking around another ten minutes til they actually opened them. But I’ve only read the first book, so it will be a while before I get to it.

I walked home in time to hear the beginning of a discussion of the Harry phenom on Charlie Rose with Nancy Gibbs (who wrote Time’s cover story), Janet Maslin of the New York Times (which has a section with reviews of the books and films), and Arthur Levine who edits the books.

And the first reviews are appearing. I’m just skimming them because I don’t want to pick up any plot details. The often scathing Michiko Kakutani is full of praise while David Kippen is probably going to get hate email after writingin the SF Chron, “For most of the book’s nearly 900 pages, a pervasive sense of stale familiarity hangs over the entire affair, as if we’re stuck in a plane cabin whose air has recirculated a few too many times.” The Kansan City Star has quotes from a few reviews.

The Guardian has perhaps the best passage so far, “The first kiss – which comes in a Valentine’s Day sequence – accurately captures the embarrassment of such moments, although Rowling’s responsibility to her much younger readers is clearly forcing her to give Harry and Ron a ridiculously decorous adolescence: no frenzied polishing of their wands in the dormitory after lights out, for example.” And the review concludes with:

Rowling is, however, accessory to a sin: a word about the circumstances of this review. Because of the insistence of the writer and her publishers Bloomsbury on releasing the book at midnight on Friday – with no advance review copies – the Guardian convened what is believed to be the world’s first ever speed-reviewing team.

Five young assistants – not that young because it was past the target audience’s bed-time – joined me in a specially prepared rapid-analysis room in West London where the books were rushed from the Waterstone’s branch in Notting Hill precisely as the clocks ticked over from weekday into weekend…took 128 pages each in order to file a group-review for the final edition of the Saturday Guardian. That done, I speed-read on through the night alone, filing this more considered piece at breakfast time.

Writers and publishers may say that no book should be reviewed like this. Well, yes. But no book should be published like this. Rowling and Bloomsbury have turned literature into news, with all the embargos and immediacy that entails. To adopt a tone appropriate to a book about schoolchildren: they started it.

And that is something to keep in mind. Levine on Charlie Rose defended the embargo saying it was for the fun of the event. All of the early reviews are rush jobs (this was also the case with Hillary’s book) and perhaps the most interesting will start appearing soon on the many Harry Potter fan sites.

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About Steve Rhodes

  • Eric Olsen

    Nice job Steve, very interesting. thanks!