by J. K. Rowling (Scholastic; various pub. dates); narrated by Jim Dale
In anticipation of the July 21, 2007 release of the seventh and last book in the series, I am re-reading (actually, listening to) the first six books in the series. It is my first opportunity to listen to the Jim Dale recordings in their entirety. He’s really great. Most of the characters are immediately recognizable by their voices and accents. As with many audiobooks, I appreciate the impossibility of skimming through the story too quickly. When I first read these books, I read them very fast, because the stories are so riveting; now, I am taking this opportunity to savor the stories and the language.
Rowling’s style is uncomplicated, and she moves the stories along skillfully. Reading them all together like this makes one realize that they are really all one long story; this is particularly true of books 6 and 7. At the end of book 6, the reader is given a kind of map for the last book. We already know that Harry and his friends may not be returning to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for their final year, and that they will probably spend the year chasing down and destroying the various horcruxes (shards of the evil Voldemort’s soul which he has hidden in various places to ensure his immortality).
I read recently that the Harry Potter books are “just British school stories,” as if that were a bad thing. Indeed, they are a very clever reflection of life in British boarding schools. Never having attended one of these schools, I can still imagine what they are like, based on Rowling’s description of the magical Hogwarts. Her attention to detail is formidable, and the fantastic elements are usually very clever and funny.
For English learners, the Harry Potter books have a lot of advantages and some disadvantages. Those who have already read the books in translation, or seen the movies, will find reading the novels in the original English to be less daunting than starting a novel from scratch without any background information. The frequent reference to what has gone before will give readers a solid grounding in that elusive tense, the past perfect (“At the age of one year old, Harry had somehow survived a curse from the greatest Dark sorcerer of all time…), and Rowling makes constant use of participial phrases (“‘Ignore them,’ he said, accelerating to catch up with Ron….”), which grammar books tend to treat as an after-thought but which are frequently used in English writing.
On the negative side, learners of American English will learn a lot of British expressions such as skiving off class, rounding on someone, bloke, snog…) and all learners will need to develop a vocabulary of Harry Potterisms (muggles, horcrux, quidditch, thestral, apparate and disapparate…) which will do them little good in the real world. They may have difficulty making sense of Hagrid the gamekeeper’s speech (where final consonants disappear, to is ter and you is yeh) without guidance.
Nevertheless, much useful vocabulary is presented and used over and over, so that readers who persevere will expand their vocabulary naturally and effortlessly. There is, of course, much use of dialogue, which can be helpful in improving production and comprehension of natural speech.
The main attraction of the series, however, remains the page-turning appeal of the stories. Readers who dislike fantasy in general will probably not like this series either, and it would be a mistake to expect them to; but for those readers/learners with an appreciation for the whimsical and magical, Harry Potter is hard to beat.
Addendum, after reading the last book (twice): I thought the finale was awesome. Like The da Vinci Code, it started fast and hardly slowed down. V. and I read it to each other, which slowed me down somewhat (5 days instead of 2), but that is good, because left to my own devices I would have read it too fast and missed too much. As it was, when I re-read (on audio) I noticed much that I had missed the first time through. The complexity of the interwoven plot always amazes me. How could J.K. keep it all straight in her mind for 10 years and 4,000 pages?
After the 6th book, we were all on tenterhooks about whether Dumbledore was really dead or not. In the 7th, J.K. showed us how he could be dead but still present in the novel and in the lives of Harry and the others. Somehow, the fact that he had died ceased to matter so much.
Like one reviewer I read, I also noticed strong similarities to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. This novel of witches and sorcerers ended up with an obvious Christian allegory–what a surprise! In fact, there were many surprises. Rowling kept us all guessing until the last page. What a talent!