Old School Wednesdays presents an epic reread of The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. THIS MONTH ON THE RE-READ: we rediscover young Harry Potter as he finds his way to Hogwarts for the very first time in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
Old School Wednesdays is a weekly Book Smuggler feature. We came up with the idea towards the end of 2012, when both Ana and Thea were feeling exhausted from the never-ending inundation of New and Shiny (and often over-hyped) books. What better way to snap out of a reading fugue than to take a mini-vacation into the past?
This time, on our Old School Wednesday journey, we kick-start a new feature for the first half (ok, two-thirds) of 2016–The Epic Harry Potter Re-Read with our joint review of the first book!
Title: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (UK) /Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (US)
Author: J.K. Rowling
Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy
Publisher: Bloomsbury (UK) / Scholastic (US)
Publication Date: First published 1997
Paperback: 310 Pages
Harry Potter thinks he is an ordinary boy. He lives with his Uncle Vernon, Aunt Petunia and cousin Dudley, who are mean to him and make him sleep in a cupboard under the stairs. (Dudley, however, has two bedrooms, one to sleep in and one for all his toys and games.) Then Harry starts receiving mysterious letters and his life is changed forever. He is whisked away by a beetle-eyed giant of a man and enrolled at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The reason: Harry Potter is a wizard! The first book in the “Harry Potter” series makes the perfect introduction to the world of Hogwarts.
Stand alone or series: Book 1 in the Harry Potter series
How did we get this book: Bought
Format (e- or p-): Print (Hardcover, illustrated editions)
It’s hard not to start this review with one of the classic Official Introduction to My Harry Potter Story. So here is mine: I didn’t grow up reading Harry Potter because I was already a grown-up by the time the books arrived in Brazil and were translated in Portuguese.
I started them in 2001 – I was 25 years old and at that point the first four books were available – I read them in quick succession and fell in love. I have always been a fan of kids’ books and this hasn’t changed just because I am An Adult: good stories are good stories are good stories. This is true now and it was true then.
The first Harry Potter book I read in English was Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix simply because I could NOT wait the six months that it was going to take between UK publication and the Brazilian release so I got an imported copy. I still remember how painful it was to pay that much money for the book – and I also still remember the confusion when I started reading. Like, WHO the HELL are James and Lilly? (Harry’s parents in Brazil are called Tiago and Lilian). But beyond that, it felt great to be a part of what the entire world was doing, at the same time that it was happening. The last two books came out when I was already living in England. I waited anxiously for Amazon to drop my copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by the door and when it arrived at 8am, I sat down and didn’t come out for air until it was all done and I had cried so much I actually NEEDED water to rehydrate.
I didn’t grow up with Harry Potter. But Harry Potter was right there in 2001 when I was having a Hard Time. It was right there when I needed a good story. It was right there when I moved to England and started a new life. It was right there to show me that good characters exist in any category of books – and that good stories live forever.
So, this re-read? It’s not only the first time I am re-reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone but also the first time I read it in the original English. And from the get go, it was a great experience: this is the first Harry Potter novel and as such it is an introduction to the character and to that magical world. I forgot that this first book has a more omniscient narrative style and how magical the storytelling is and how it fits perfectly the wondrous discoveries that Harry Potter goes through.
I also had forgotten how young the first book skews: it’s not only in the tone and voice but also in how that introduction sometimes reads more flashy than deep. A few characters appear more as caricatures (the Dursleys? Draco?) than real people but those are few and far between although having the benefit of knowing how it all progresses certainly helps. Say what you will about J.K. Rowling but her grasp on what good, unforgettable characters are is right there from the beginning and it’s hard not to fall for Harry, Hermione, Ron, little courageous Neville, Fred and George, Hagrid and all the professors. It is equally hard not to recoil at the Dursleys’ horribleness or not to want to punch Draco Malfoy or to think Snape is Up To No Good.
On the downside, the ending is so rushed, and I would have appreciated a little but more time with the puzzles because that’s just the type of reader I am. And something else I had forgotten: the unfortunate fat shaming that is peppered throughout this novel. And the Gryffindor bias is so strong it is hilarious. Snape’s teaching methods are closer to abuse – why would the teaching body at Hogwarts even allow that? Seriously.
Now, even though I knew absolutely everything about this book and this world: I still cried multiple times re-reading it. When Hagrid goes “yer a wizard, Harry”; when Harry first flies a broomstick and realises there is something he is really good at? I couldn’t take it: this is a little boy who FINALLY finds a place where he belongs and more than that even, a place where people like him and take care of him.
Then, at this moment:
The common room was packed and noisy. Everyone was eating the food that had been sent up. Hermione, however, stood alone by the door, waiting for them. There was a very embarrassed pause. Then, none of them looking at each other, they all said “Thanks,” and hurried off to get plates.
But from that moment on, Hermione Granger became their friend. There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.
“It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.”
And because I am a sap and the Jim Kay illustrations (the illustrated book is SO worth it!) are amazing and beautiful and gutwrenching, here too:
I AM SO happy we are doing this re-read.
Like many readers of my generation, I grew up with Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley. I actually came to the series a little as a 15 year old, thanks to my younger sister, who was getting super into the first two books. This was right before the first film came out in theaters–and, given all of the mounting buzz for the book release of The Goblet of Fire, I decided to give the books a chance. I have never, ever looked back. With every new book in the series, it became a family-style battle royale for first dibs–in particular, I recall the family trip when The Order of the Phoenix came out and we were living in Indonesia at the time, so we had to buy/read the UK edition (which didn’t match the US editions we had already collected) and there was a resulting age-hierarchy of reading priority that prevailed (mom got the book first, then me, then my younger sis) (sorry, younger sis).
By the time The Deathly Hallows came out, I was just finishing university and at my first career–I am not ashamed to admit that, having my own money, finally living in the US, and not having to share books with my sister or mother, I attended a Harry Potter midnight release party at my local Borders (RIP, Borders), scooped up my copy and then rushed home to read as much as I could before passing out. At this point, Ana and I were already online buddies and through a spoiler board on a LOST forum (…don’t ask), we started reading the book together. EVERY HOUR we would update that thread with our feels–all the shattered dreams, heartbreak, and ultimate triumph. (There was a lot of OMGOMGOMG ***** JUST DIED HOW WHY NOOOOOOOOO! And so on and so forth.)
This, I think, was the first real precursor to The Epic Harry Potter Re-Read.
And so, Ana and I find ourselves here–the first book in the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I confess that I haven’t gone back and re-read the first two books in the series since many, many years ago; in fact, I think I’ve only re-read The Sorcerer’s Stone once. Because Azkaban is so good and so formative and such a major watershed in terms of both the films and the books, whenever I embark on a re-read, that’s where I start.
Thus, another reason I’m so glad we are doing this re-read from the very beginning because it forced me to sit down and rediscover the magic of Harry Potter through the lens of a young middle grade novel, from the very, very beginning.
What struck me instantly about this go-round was, as Ana mentions, how young the book felt. And for good reason! Harry is only a baby when The Sorcerer’s Stone begins, and a 10-year-old for the rest of the book–he’s a first year student at the coolest boarding school ever, and an outsider who is for the first time experiencing not only magic and mayhem, but important things like friendship and family. The other thing that immediately jumped out at me while reading was just how HORRIBLE Harry had it, growing up. I mean, we all know this, but outside of the first book and arguably The Order of the Phoenix (aka, Harry’s enormously pissed off book of Teen Angst), we don’t really grasp the full horribleness of the Dursleys and Harry’s life as a child. He’s been shut out from others. He sleeps in a spider-filled closet under the stairs. He is told, repeatedly, by a family that hates him that he is nothing and no one wants him. At best, he is ignored and treated as invisible–the first time he makes a trip to the zoo as a 10-year-old, it’s the first time he’s been to the zoo. I don’t think the impact of this horribleness quite hit me as a younger reader, but it certainly impacts me now.
And further to that point, a question. Dumbledore, Professor McGonagall, and Hagrid make the decision to leave Harry with his relatives–for his safety, in part, but more importantly to make sure he grows up without an inflated ego. Dumbledore says:
“It would be enough to turn any boy’s head. Famous before he can walk and talk! Famous for something he won’t even remember! Can’t you see how much better off he’ll be, growing up away from all that until he’s ready to take it?”
And… given just how deplorable the Dursleys are, and the treatment of Harry is so abominably bad, I don’t know how I feel about this logic. Dumbledore, this is a HORRIBLE childhood to foist on a baby who just lost his parents–and while I understand the sentiment, children born into incredibly fortunate circumstances can turn out to be wonderful people. I don’t know how to feel about this as a larger message–but in the context of knowing what Dumbledore knows and how Harry’s story shakes out, I can see why this particular choice was made by Dumbledore (and the cruel Ms. Rowling). Fairytales are often incredibly, gleefully cruel–this is especially the case for young Potter in this first book.
Questionable Dumbledorian ethics aside–which is going to be a big recurring theme in this re-read, I predict–all of the magic and verve of The Sorcerer’s Stone completely won me over. Again. Coming into Hogwarts, dining in the Great Hall, seeing the Sorting Hat for the first time, attending classes with Harry and Ron and Hermione, watching the very first Quidditch match unfold… it’s all every bit as vibrant and engrossing as the first time. Perhaps moreso this time around, because of Jim Kay’s gorgeous art–which, I’m happy to say, deviates from the film representations of Hogwarts and characters enough to make this feel like a brand new discovery.
Other standout high points to add to Ana’s:
- The time when Hagrid comes delivering Harry on SIRIUS BLACK’s motorcycle (GUH)
- The time Hagrid stands up to the Dursleys and breaks Harry out in order to get him to Hogwarts
- The time we see Harry’s reading/required list, and A History of Magic by Bathilda Bagshot (!) is on there
- The time that Ron says something very mean about Hermione and she runs off to the bathroom and then the troll attack, and Hermione breaks the rules for the first time
- The time where the three of them figure out how to get past Fluffy and face huge obstacles in which all three of them are invaluable: Ron with the chess (AWESOME), Hermione with the logic (AWESOME), Harry with all the bravery and pluck (AWESOME)
- The time that Professor McGonagall sees Harry fly for the first time, pretends to punish him but actually steals him away to talk to Wood to make sure he’s secretly instituted on the Quidditch team, effective immediately
- The time that Professor McGonagall actually punishes Gryffindor and detracts 150 points from her own house because THEY BROKE THE RULES and she’s a fair, wonderful badass
- The time when we realize that Snape isn’t actually the bad guy and has been trying to save Harry’s life, despite being a jerk to him in Potions class
- The time we see Voldemort feeding on unicorn blood and Harry gets the worst migraine of his life (ACK SCARY)
- The time when it is Neville’s contribution that saves the House Cup (because doing the right thing when you have to face your friends is harder than anything else)
And so much more.
And beyond the wonder and spectacle of witchcraft and wizardry, the core heart of this book lies with the theme of love. Love, in all of its forms–the love that Harry realizes his family had for him, the love that Harry learns to feel for his dearest friends, the love Harry has that will allow him to defeat Lord Voldemort and any lackey that stands in his way.
There is loss, there is pain, there is misunderstanding (SNAPE! Poor Snape!)–but love, at the end of the day, is the recurring motif and the beating heart that drives this book.
I, for one, loved every moment of this re-read. And I cannot, absolutely cannot wait, to read The Chamber of Secrets next month.
Ana: 8 – Excellent
Thea: 8 – BRILLIANT
About the Epic Harry Potter Re-Read:
Starting today, and extending through August, we will be re-reading each book in the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. (We’ll also be re-watching all of the movies, but we won’t be reviewing those.) Why are we doing such a thing? Because we are nostalgic for these books that we basically grew up with; because we’ve had so much fun with re-reads over the past year, especially for Old School Wednesdays (see Percy Jackson and The Dark Tower); and most of all, because this August, we Book Smugglers are going to watch Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in London. AAAAAA!!!!
Are you also a Harry Potter fan? Are you new to the books? Do you want to join our re-read fun? Well you’re in some serious luck (and you don’t even need Felix Felicis) because here’s the full schedule.
Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone – January 27
Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets – February 24
Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban – March 23
Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire – April 27
Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix – May 25
Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince – June 22
Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows – July 27
Join us, won’t you?