Book Review: Secret History of the Wizarding Phenomenon (Tarantino)

Patricio Tarantino’s Secret History of the Wizarding Phenomenon: How the Harry Potter Books, Movies, Theme Parks, and More Came to Life.

The Secret History book description from its publishers:

Based on original research and exclusive interviews, this book tells the story of how the Harry Potter books, movies, theme parks, fandom and more were created. Including the creative processes, the marketing aspect, and the legal issues that arose, this publication aims to be a behind-the-scenes of the Harry Potter phenomenon.

With the testimony of editors, artists, publicists, and producers, Secret History of the Wizarding Phenomenon features rare facts and oddities from the publication of the books and the making of the films that changed and connected the lives of millions.

For those who grew up with Harry Potter, this book will spark memories of the early days. For those who are just discovering the franchise, this book will take you on a journey to understand the widespread popularity of the boy wizard.

From an idea on a train to one of the biggest franchises in the world, this is the tale of how J.K. Rowling, alongside publishing houses, production companies and creative teams, made Harry Potter the phenomenon that it is today.

Three Notes after my first reading of the book:

(1) What It Is: Secret History is the translation and update of the 2018 book with the same subject and name albeit in Spanish by Patricio Tarantino, founder and driving force behind the best Harry Potter fan site, The Rowling Library (TRL). History gathers in one place the public record of J. K. Rowling’s Wizarding World, from its genesis in Rowling’s seven Harry Potter novels and ancillary texts to the franchise-empire that includes film adaptations and original screenplays, stage productions, pilgrimage sites akin to Disneyland, and intellectual technology video games.

While there is nothing in it that is “secret” in the sense of being privileged information unavailable to diligent researchers, it is easily the most professional and thorough collection of facts about the “Wizarding Phenomenon,” many of which points were unknown to me and a consequent delight to read, written in a conversational and accessible voice that makes turning the pages much like a conversation with an erudite expert that you hope never ends. Mr. Tarantino loves his subject, knows his material backwards and forwards, shares an avalanche of information in an organized and effective manner that never becomes a fire hose or series of rabbit-holes, and maintains throughout the attitude of enthusiast rather than other-worldly academic. Secret History is, consequently, the best one-stop textual reference on the history of Harry Potter and subsequent Rowling-driven magical experiences available today.

(2) Why It Is Important: History is important, first of all and most obviously, because it fills a need. It has been more than a decade since Anelli’s Harry: A History and Vander Ark’s Harry Potter Lexicon (the book), and, though those books include much of the same information as History, neither attempted to be as objective, comprehensive, or as chronological. And a lot has happened since the publication of Deathly Hallows. Secret History covers it.

I think, though, that the primary importance of Tarantino’s Secret History is its being the first publication of TRL Books of a proper text you can hold in your hand and pull from a shelf. The advent of a publisher devoted to Rowling-related discussion and criticism holds the promise of a re-birth in Potter Punditry, a centripetal force that gathers under one publishing umbrella what is now scattered online, in ad hoc vanity press publications, or only available in overpriced academic editions. The quality of Secret History, the pleasure it is to read because of the care given its formatting and assembly as a published text, reflects Tarantino’s knowledge as the serious book collector he is and, one can only hope, is the first of many such titles in coming years. (On the TRL Books website, it seems two more books are in the queue for publication.)

(3) Why You Want to Get a Copy: The reasons above, i.e., Secret History being a thorough and delightful record of Rowling’s magical experiences across the spectrum of 21st Century entertainment categories and it being the first effort of a publisher which serious readers should support with their book allowance, are sufficient and significant reasons to purchase this book. I think the principal reason I will buy and give copies to friends this Christmas on top of those two prompts will be my feelings of gratitude and admiration for the author, whose online Rowling Library magazine, Rowling Index compilation of resources by The Presence, and search engines dedicated to the Potter texts and the Strike series have all been invaluable helps to me as a fan and literary critic.

The work of Patricio Tarantino, in brief, has been a god-send to Potter Punditry and Rowling Readers. His humility, generosity, and intelligence, moreover, has made every one of my interactions with him and TRL – and we communicate on almost a daily basis, as readers of this site must know because of the many references and hat-tips to Mr Tarantino and TRL in HogwartsProfessor posts – have been a delight and an invitation to think harder and better about Rowling and her work. The quality of Secret History, the importance of TRL Books, and the character of the author make reading the book and buying copies to give as gifts as natural as cheering for your favorite team and as much a pleasure as sitting down to a festive meal with family and friends.

Is Secret History perfect? Of course it isn’t. If you’re like me, you’ll disagree at points with connections Mr Tarantino makes between Rowling biography and text, you’ll lament the absence of an Index, and you’ll wish he discussed things he does not choose to cover as part of the “Wizarding Phenomenon.” This last point, though, reminds me of my biggest disappointment with Beatrice Groves’ Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, that is, that it didn’t include 20th Century influences and allusions, most notably, Nabokov, Lewis, and P. D. James. This disappointment actually serves as praise rather than a criticism because it speaks to the quality of what the author did say and the desire that the book in question was only longer and more inclusive.

There is next to nothing in Secret History about Casual Vacancy, Cormoran Strike, or books that interpret the Hogwarts Saga. Which, again, is understandable and simultaneously frustrating. I hope he’ll write another History someday about each of these subjects! That Mr Tarantino sidesteps discussion of the Transgender Controversy and Rowling’s history on Twitter, too, may be more reason to praise the book and the author’s prudence than cause for lament.

Full disclosure – I was sent a copy of the book by the author, albeit with no strings attached other than a request between friends for personal feedback. Secret History is as good as Patricio Tarantino’s previous work made me expect it would be, which is to say again, that it is very, very good indeed.

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