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Lev Grossman and Andrea Sachs, writing for Time about the layers of secrecy surrounding Scholastic’s printing of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows makes a keener point about reading than I usually expect from the likes of Time. To date the manuscript’s only been read by a half-dozen people (including a continuity editor), and anyone who touches the book before July 21 swears to secrecy by signing long “Don’t open the box… or else!” contracts. All this apparatus is in pursuit of something Scholastic calls a “magic moment,” when the boxes are opened at midnight and everyone gasps, much as the woman in the middle distance in Charles Willson Peale’s 1822 self portrait, The Artist in His Museum, is gasping at the sight of the mastadon.

Charles Willson Peale, The Artist in His Museum, 1822

But even as Grossman and Sachs explain Scholastic’s reasoning, they doubt it:

But with all that emphasis on the magic moment, there is the risk that people will forget why books are, in fact, books and not movies or TV shows. They’re not about midnight parties or hype or even moments, however magical. Reading is, after all, the most solitary and contemplative and long-lasting of all aesthetic pleasures….

Ironically, the Harry Potter brain trust could be guilty of underestimating the power of the books it’s trying so energetically to sell. The magic-moment strategy promotes a myth about Rowling’s work—and reading in general—which is that the pleasure of a book is a fragile enchantment that’s easily dispelled….

People read books for any number of reasons; finding out how the story ends is one among many and not even the most important. If it were otherwise, nobody would ever bother to read a book twice. Reading is about spending time with characters and entering a fictional world and playing with words and living through a story page by page. The idea that someone could ruin a novel by revealing its ending is like saying you could ruin the Mona Lisa by revealing that it’s a picture of a woman with a center part. Spoilers are a myth: they don’t spoil. No elaborate secrecy campaign is going to make Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows any better than it already is, and no website could possibly make it useless and boring.

I sympathize with Grossman’s and Sach’s point. They’re right about reading, that it’s not generally about spoilers, but about the phenomenon of reading itself and the discovery that participating in that phenomenon can engender. However, their appeal to the inherent value of the book itself surely overestimates Deathly Hallows. Appealing to the Mona Lisa won’t change the fact that Rowling’s books are heavily plotted such that much of the pleasure of the text is discovering what will happen. (For example, the form of Deathly Hallows was pretty well set with Harry’s and Dumbledore’s visit to the cave in Half-Blood Prince. Especially now that Voldemort’s motivations have been laid out, I expect Deathly Hallows to be a series of quests—something like Goblet of Fire, but with the environment being the primary competition, not other students—framed by two weddings. On the way Hagrid will most definitely die. Probably, Severus Snape’s character will become even more central, too; indeed, I expect him to be the one who kills Voldemort.) Certainly, Bérubé‘s right that the books are charming. Rowling’s imaginativeness allows the fact that the plots are predictable (e.g., an illicit trip to Hagrid’s cabin unlocks the door to each book’s big mystery) to be forgivable. Her humor is considerable, and though these books don’t reveal her to be a great stylist, she conveys mood very well (a preponderance of adverbs notwithstanding). This is true in spite of knowing what happens, as we recently discovered when we reread Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince to each other on our two trips to New York. Grossman and Sach counter Scholastic’s spoiler protection with an appeal to the book’s (and to books’) inherent value. They’re wrong on that point—no artistic venture has inherent value, not even the Mona Lisa, which is in fact ruined by describing it as a portrait of a woman with a center part. The Mona Lisa has value because it is more often described as a portrait of a woman by one of the great masters of art, because it hangs in the Louvre, because it has been celebrated for centuries, and because it is a mark of cultural capital to go there to see it; that description is so common that Grossman and Sach can allude to it by simply assuming it is the true description and implying any other description, especially one that elides it, is obviously wrong. The “magic moment” Scholastic is trying to create is of the same type of moment that surrounds the seeing of the Mona Lisa, and it is a large part—though certainly not all—of what gives Deathly Hallows value. And this is true, especially, because nobody has read it.

Speaking of, we’re going to our first midnight release ever this time: buying Deathly Hallows will be the cap to our anniversary! Should we dress up, do you think?



If I go down to the local bookstore, the one on the corner that sells a mix of used and new books, largely used, but solid selection of NYTimes bestsellers to hopefully make enough money to not go bust, if I go down to the store, which I need to do tomorrow, we might very well be at our first midnight signing, daughter in tow, should we dress her up?

though there are many reasons to read, plot and character are the main reasons for HP… and, though I would not want anyone to tell me what happens, I would not want that because I want to see for myself if my predictions (most of which I’ve forgotten, most of which line up with Greg’s predictions) hold true, knowing the ending, or even knowing something tragic or hopeful from the book would not keep me from reading… then again, neither you, Greg, nor I are normal readers.

though, i must say, language is typically not one reason for returning to rawling… which is often one of the main reasons for rereading.

Our own rereading was a matter of plot and character refreshment. As we were reading (K can attest) I would pipe up, “That’s Remy Rumplestiltskin, who, according to people on the InterTubenetWebs, might be important in the last book!”

Except for poems, I don’t reread principally for language, unless the language was initially difficult and I believe that rereading is worth working through the difficulty. I reread in the face of complexity—complex plotting that opens up ambiguities, or characterizations—or for the mastery of moods.

well, maybe language was too vague. i reread, except for teaching, which has me constantly rereading, for turns of phrases, for ways of describing things.

do you, as did John Gregory Dunne, who, according to Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking reread to see how an author handles a complex story? He apparently reread Sophie’s Choice several times during a whole summer.

Yes—although to be fair, I’m not rereading much of anything lately, but rather am reading a lot of books for the first time—the main criterion being that I am reading books I already own. I’m reading Henry James for a broader sense of handling complex stories (or, simple stories complexly), though in order to satisfy the first requirement, I went out and bought a bunch of James early this spring.

Hmm. . . I would say that I do read, and reread, primarily for language. Sometimes I also reread for the pleasure of having happen again the things I want to happen (that, obviously, applies only to some books). Surely I’ve quoted that bit from CS Lewis about how when you find a man who has reread a book many times, no matter how bad that book is, it is for him a kind of poetry. That’s why I reread.

As for HP, it’s certainly true that what happens next is of great importance. I’ve never understood the desire to guess, though. People keep asking me who I think is going to die, and I never have an answer. I just want to read the book in my own sweet time and find out when I do.

That reminds me: Everybody, Laura smartly identifies the books she’s rereading when she lists the books she’s reading. Also, everybody, L rereads a lot.

I ascribe the desire to guess with HP to peoples desires to grasp hold of narrative. Rowling’s pretty much written genre narratives, but the genre is largely her own (cobbled together from a number of other styles). It’s like knowing mysteries so well that you can identify the killer right away, but you read anyway for the pleasure of getting there.