Guest Post: David Martin reveals the Role of Books in the Hogwarts Saga

Tomorrow night MuggleNet Academia’s Keith Hawk and I interview David Martin, Potter Pundit extraordinaire, about a talk he gave at MISTI Con on the role of books inside the Harry Potter novels. David graciously agreed to letting me post his notes from that brilliant talk here so listeners could have a follow-up reference to the podcast. He only asks that I mention upfront that this is a work in progress, not a polished piece or finished production.

If you’re like me, you’ll be wow’ed by this remarkable survey and eager to hear David talk on the subject in this week’s MuggleNet Academia show. Here’s David!

[An updated version of David’s Notes was posted here at his direction on Thursday, 2 July 2015. Enjoy!]


Note: This talk was presented at Misti-Con in 2013 and again in 2015.


The Harry Potter novels take place in a fully developed book culture – that is, they take place in a world where people (some people) use and interact with books.  There are many more books used in the Harry Potter novels than there are other series with which they are sometimes compared.  When I present this topic as a talk, I begin by asking the audience for the names of books that are mentioned in the HP novels.  The audience will easily come up with a dozen titles very quickly.

I then ask the audience for the names of books that are mentioned in The Chronicles of Narnia.  The initial silence is stunning.  There are some – such as the magician’s Book of Incantations from which Lucy reads a spell, but not nearly as many and people don’t recall them as easily.

How about The Lord of the Rings Trilogy?   Usually someone will remember There and Back Again (which is part of Red Book of Westmarch) but that’s about it.

Any books in The Hunger Games?  I couldn’t remember any, but I am indebted to Dr. Louise M. Freeman for reminding me that there are three very important books: Katniss’s family plant book, Cinna’s costume book and the memory book Katniss and Peeta create as therapy.

On the other hand, the Harry Potter wikia list over 200 book titles that are mentioned in the HP novels.  Obviously there is a difference.

The prominence of books in the Harry Potter novels is only partially explained by the fact that the Harry Potter novels are set in a school.  Several of the most important books in these novels are not school books or textbooks. Consider The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore, Tom Riddle’s diary and The Tales of Beedle the Bard.  None of these are textbooks, and yet these are so important that they could almost be said to function as characters in the novels.  Notice also that the Twilight series is at least partially set in a school – in a high school – and there are not nearly as many books mentioned.

It is clear that Rowling understands books.  They are an ocean in which she knows how to swim (as does her sometimes spokesperson Hermione.)  In her interview with Charlie Rose Rowling talked about growing up in a house full of books and thanked her mother for that.

I’d like to cover these topics in this talk:

  • Who Uses Books (and Who Doesn’t)
  • How Books are Used by the Characters in the HP Novels
  • How Books are Used by J. K. Rowling in Advancing the Plot
  • How the Book Using Skills of the Three Grow in the Series
  • What We Can Learn to Become Better Readers Ourselves


Who Uses Books (and Who Doesn’t)

When we pay attention to the times books are mentioned in these novels, a pattern quickly emerges: Usually the good guys have and use books and the bad guys don’t.

Places where we do NOT see books:

  • The Gaunt shack (Was Marvolo Gaunt illiterate?  Maybe. — “I’ve no use for owls,” said Gaunt. “I don’t open letters.”  HBP, page 204)
  • Malfoy Manor (While there is no mention of books in the two times that we visit Malfoy Manor, it is a manor house and so there are many rooms.  One of them may be a library.)
  • Number Twelve Grimmauld Place (in the main part of the house) except for Nature’s Nobility.
  • Number Four Privet Drive (except for Dudley’s second bedroom, where the books “looked as though they’d never been touched.” PS, page 38)  Notice also that Harry did not belong to the library.  When his first Hogwarts letter came  “Harry picked it up and stared at it, his heart twanging like a giant elastic band . No one, ever, in his whole life, had written to him. Who would? He had no friends, no other relatives — he didn’t belong to the library, so he’d never even got rude notes asking for books back.” (PS, page 34)

Places where we DO see books:

  • The Burrow (“Books were stacked three deep on the mantelpiece, books with titles like Charm Your Own Cheese, Enchantment in Baking, and One Minute Feasts — It’s Magic!” COS page 34)
  • At Xenophilius Lovegood’s house/office (“There were piles upon piles of books and papers on every surface.” DH page 400)
  • In Sirius Black’s room in Number Twelve Grimmauld Place (“A shaft of light revealed bits of paper, books, and small objects scattered over the carpet. Evidently Sirius’s bedroom had been searched too, although its contents seemed to have been judged mostly, if not entirely, worthless. A few of the books had been shaken roughly enough to part company with their covers, and sundry pages littered the floor. Harry bent down, picked up a few of the pieces of paper, and examined them. He recognized one as part of an old edition of A History of Magic, by Bathilda Bagshot, and another as belonging to a motorcycle maintenance manual.”  DH pages 179-180)
  • Snape’s house in Spinner’s End (“The walls were completely covered in books, most of them bound in old black or brown leather…”  HBP, page 22)  If we had picked up on this clue earlier, we could have known that Snape really was one of the good guys before DH was published.)
  • In the house where Slughorn is staying when we first meet him.  (“He certainly had (creature comforts), thought Harry, looking around the room. It was stuffy and cluttered, yet nobody could say it was uncomfortable; there were soft chairs and footstools, drinks and books, boxes of chocolates and plump cushions.”  HBP page 66, emphasis added)
  • Though we don’t see him in his house, notice that when Remus Lupin packs up his stuff at the end of POA “Lupin threw his last few books into his case…” (page 424) so obviously he owned books.

This white hat/black hat division has implications: Usually when the good guys need information, they go to books and when the bad guys need information they go to people.  Items:

  • When Draco Malfoy wants to repair the broken vanishing cabinet, he goes to Borgen and asks how to do it.  (Of course he is also telling Borgen to keep the paired cabinet in his store.)
  • When Voldemort wants to know why his wand failed, he kidnaps Ollivander.

On the other hand:

  • When Hermione wants to find out how to destroy Horcruxes, she summons books and reads them.
  • When Hagrid gets a dragon’s egg, he goes to the Hogwart’s library to get a book.  (“Well, I’ve bin doin’ some readin’,” said Hagrid, pulling a large book from under his pillow. “Got this outta the library — Dragon Breeding for Pleasure and Profit — it’s a bit outta date, o’ course, but it’s all in here. Keep the egg in the fire, ’cause their mothers breathe on ’em, see, an’ when it hatches, feed it on a bucket o’ brandy mixed with chicken blood every half hour. An’ see here — how ter recognize diff’rent eggs — what I got there’s a Norwegian Ridgeback. They’re rare, them.”   PS, page 233)
  • The trio goes through a lot of books in the library to try to find out who Nicolas Flamel is.

This tendency of the bad guys to get information from people leads to a telling mistake by Barty Crouch Jr. when he is disguised as Moody.  He makes what anthropologists and military planners call the “mirror image” error.  This is the error of assuming that the other person or the enemy will act in a given set of circumstances as you would act in those circumstances.  Moody mistakenly assumes that when Harry needs to find out how to breathe underwater for the second task in the Tri-Wizard tournament that he (Harry) will start asking people. (“all those hours in the library. Didn’t you realize that the book you needed was in your dormitory all along? I planted it there early on, I gave it to the Longbottom boy, don’t you remember?  Magical Water Plants of the Mediterranean. It would have told you all you needed to know about gillyweed. I expected you to ask everyone and anyone you could for help. Longbottom would have told you in an instant. But you did not . . . you did not. . . . “  GOF page 677  Emphasis added).  If Crouch had really understood Harry he would have left to book in the library – or perhaps given it to Hermione.


There is a related issue here.  If you look at how people in these novels send messages to each other, there is a strong tendency for the good guys to write letters and notes to each other and for the bad guys to rely of verbal communication.  Items:

  • Harry exchanges letters with Ron, Hermione, and Sirius.
  • The headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix is revealed to Harry in a note written by Dumbledore.
  • Dumbledore and Sirius exchange letters. (“I see,” said Dumbledore quietly. “I see. Now, has your scar hurt at any other time this year, excepting the time it woke you up over the summer?” “No, I — how did you know it woke me up over the summer?” said Harry, astonished. “You are not Sirius’s only correspondent,” said Dumbledore. “I have also been in contact with him ever since he left Hogwarts last year. It was I who suggested the mountainside cave as the safest place for him to stay.”   GOF page 600)
  • At the very beginning of the series, one of the first things we see Dumbledore do is leave a letter with the baby Harry for the Dursleys.
  • When Kingsley Shacklebolt stops by Number Twelve, he leaves a report for Dumbledore. (“(Harry heard) a deep voice he recognized as Kingsley Shacklebolt’s saying, “Hestia’s just relieved me, so she’s got Moody’s cloak now, thought I’d leave a report for Dumbledore . . .”  OOP page 103)

On the other hand…

  • Though we don’t actually see the scene, Wormtail’s betrayal of the Potters is imagined (by Sirius Black) as a verbal message.  (“It must have been the finest moment of your miserable life, telling Voldemort you could hand him the Potters.”  POA 369)
  • The meeting we see in chapter one of DH (“The Dark Lord Rising”) is clearly a meeting to receive verbal reports.
  • I can find no reference in the novels to Voldemort ever writing a letter or sending an owl.
  • I can find only one instance of Voldemort receiving an owl/letter.  That is when Crouch Jr. sends a letter that Wormtail’s “blunder” of allowing Crouch Sr. to escape had been corrected by killing him (Crouch Sr.)

I also find in interesting that though Harry sometimes gets notes from Dumbledore, from Hagrid, and from Slughorn, when Snape needs to send the message that Harry must come and do a detention, Snape sends a verbal message.  This happens twice: in GOF, when the message comes via Ron on page 312 and in HBP when the message comes via Demelza on page 235.  Perhaps this is just a plot device to explain why Harry doesn’t recognize Snape’s writing in the Prince’s old potions book.

(And let us note in passing that when Snape lists the ingredients and steps for a potion on the blackboard by flicking his wand – as he does in OOP page 232 – he must be using the magical equivalent of Powerpoint, because apparently neither Harry nor Hermione nor Ron learns to recognize his handwriting.)


How Books are Used by the Characters in the HP Novels

The characters in the HP novels use books in several different ways:

As Gifts

Notice how many times books are given as presents:

  • In PS/SS, Dumbledore complains about it: (“People will insist on giving me books.”  Page 214)
  • At the end of PS/SS, Hagrid gives Harry a book of photos of his parents.
  • In COS, at Christmas Ron gives Harry a copy of Flying with the Cannons (page 212)
  • In POA, for his birthday Harry receives a copy of the Monster Book of Monsters from Hagrid and a broomstick servicing kit from Hermione that includes the Handbook of Do-It-Yourself Broomcare. (page 12)
  • At Christmas in GOF, Hermione gives Harry a copy of Quidditch Teams of Britain and Ireland. (page 410)
  • For Christmas in OOP, Lupin and Sirius give Harry a set of books entitled Practical Defensive Magic and Its Use Against the Dark Arts (page 501) and Harry gives Hermione New Theory of Numerology (page 503)
  • For his birthday in HBP Ron receives a copy of the book Twelve Fail-Safe Ways to Charm Witches from Fred and George and then Ron gives a copy of this book to Harry on Harry’s 17th birthday in DH (page 113)
  • In his will Albus Dumbledore gives Hermione The Tales of Beedle the Bard.

And we won’t mention the homework planning diaries that Hermione gives Ron and Harry.

As Something to Hide Behind

There are several instances of this, but here’s one of the most obvious from POA page 231, just after Harry has received a Firebolt – anonymously – as a Christmas present:

Though Professor McGonagall was head of Gryffindor House, Harry had seen her in the common room only once before, and that had been to make a very grave announcement. He and Ron stared at her, both holding the Firebolt. Hermione walked around them, sat down, picked up the nearest book, and hid her face behind it.

“So that’s it, is it?” said Professor McGonagall beadily, walking over to the fireside and staring at the Firebolt. “Miss Granger has just informed me that you have been sent a broomstick, Potter.”

Harry and Ron looked around at Hermione. They could see her forehead reddening over the top of her book, which was upside down.

(Emphasis added)

As Weapons

I only find one instance of this, but it’s a good one.  In OOP (page 116), while they are cleaning out number twelve Grimmauld place:

They found an unpleasant-looking silver instrument, something like a many-legged pair of tweezers, which scuttled up Harry’s arm like a spider when he picked it up, and attempted to puncture his skin; Sirius seized it and smashed it with a heavy book entitled Nature’s Nobility: A Wizarding Genealogy.

I like this passage because it conveys several things at once:

  • There are strange, wicked little things in this house.
  • The presence of this book in the house reminds us – again – that the Black parents were very concerned about ancestry and blood status.
  • The way Sirius uses this book shows that Sirius has contempt for the whole pure-blood nonsense.
  • The way Sirius uses this book also reminds us that Sirius is a man of action, a man who’s ready for a fight.

Books are mentioned, in passing, in one other instance of violence, and this is also in OOP.  During the fight at the Department of Mysteries (page 791):

Harry, Hermione, and Neville were all knocked backward off their feet. Neville was thrown over the desk and disappeared from view, Hermione smashed into a bookcase and was promptly deluged in a cascade of heavy books; the back of Harry’s head slammed into the stone wall behind him, tiny lights burst in front of his eyes, and for a moment he was too dizzy and bewildered to react.

In this scene the books are not exactly weapons, but I find it interesting that it’s Hermione, the bookworm, who is buried by the books.

I’ve always thought that The Monster Book of Monsters might make a good weapon too if you could get it properly trained.


As Sources of Information

This, of course, is the obvious and main use of books in a school environment, but there are some things to notice:

  • Using books for information is by no means limited to school.  We see that Sirius had a maintenance manual for his motorbike when Harry explores his room (DH page 179) .  We also see that Molly Weasley consults The Healer’s Helpmate when she tries to fix Hermione’s black eye (HBP page 99).
  • Even when we are at school – and we are in the library looking for information – there is never any mention of basic reference books – that is, there is no mention of a dictionary, an encyclopedia, or an atlas.  The closest we come to that is the rune syllabary that Hermione consults.  This seems to me a curious omission and I’m not sure what to make of it.
  • There are only a few references to anyone reading for pleasure or for entertainment.  Harry reads some of his schoolbooks in his last month on Privet Drive before coming to Hogwarts the first time.  (PS/SS page 88)  The book that they finally find Nicolas Flamel in is something that Hermione picked up “for a bit of light reading.” (PS/SS page 219).  That’s about it.
  • The only fiction book mentioned is The Tales of Beedle the Bard.   This may be connected with the previous point,



How Books are Used by J. K. Rowling in Advancing the Plot

In the HP novels books are used in several ways to advance or enlarge the plot.

To Give Background Information

The most obvious examples of this are the many references to Hogwarts a History which Hermione is continually quoting.  Indeed, in one interview Rowling commented that Dumbledore and Hermione were her two favorite ways to providing background information.  Dumbledore, as the wise elder wizard, would just know stuff and Hermione would have read it in a book somewhere.

But this is not the only example.  Rita Skeeter’s book on The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore gives us a lot of background on Dumbledore, and it would have been very boring to get this information in any other way.

One of the other ways we get background information is Dumbledore’s Pensieve.  It seems to me that the Pensieve is like a book because it allows us to enter into the world of another person’s experience as though living it ourselves.  All proficient readers of fiction will recognize this experience.  I also note that when Dumbledore and Harry emerge from one of their shared trips learning about Voldemort’s background, the discussion which follows sounds very much like a discussion in a literature class after reading a chapter in a novel or a scene in a play:

“I want to draw your attention to certain features of the scene we have just witnessed, for they have a great bearing on the matters we shall be discussing in future meetings. “Firstly, I hope you noticed Riddle’s reaction when I mentioned that another shared his first name, ‘Tom’?”

Harry nodded.

“There he showed his contempt for anything that tied him to other people, anything that made him ordinary. Even then, he wished to be different, separate, notorious. He shed his name, as you know, within a few short years of that conversation and created the mask of ‘Lord Voldemort’ behind which he has been hidden for so long.

“I trust that you also noticed …..”  (HBP, page 277)

Obviously Dumbledore received an “Outstanding” in his NEWT exam on literature.

To Make Jokes

Rowling throws in what are almost one-liner jokes by mentioning certain titles:

  • Abracadabra: An A-Z of Spooky Spells
  • Broken Balls: When Fortunes Turn Foul
  • Charm Your Own Cheese
  • Dragon Breeding for Pleasure and Profit
  • Enchantment in Baking
  • Fowl or Foul? A Study of Hippogriff Brutality
  • From Egg to Inferno: a Dragon-Keeper’s Guide
  • Gadding with Ghouls
  • The Hairy Heart: A Guide to Wizards Who Won’t Commit
  • Home Life and Social Habits of British Muggles
  • The Invisible Book of Invisibility
  • Madcap Magic for Wacky Warlocks
  • Men Who Love Dragons Too Much
  • The Monster Book of Monsters
  • One Minute Feasts – It’s Magic!
  • The Philosophy of the Mundane: Why the Muggles Prefer Not to Know
  • Powers You Never Knew You Had and What To Do With Them Now You’ve Wised Up
  • Twelve Fail-Safe Ways to Charm Witches (A personal favorite of mine!)
  • A Vampire’s Monologue
  • Where There’s a Wand, There’s a Way
  • Wizards Are from Neptune, Witches Are from Saturn

Many of these, of course, are titles similar to books in our Muggle world – such as Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.

Sometimes the joke is not in the title of the book but in the name of the author.  Two samples from Harry’s first year booklist:
–  A Beginners’ Guide to Transfiguration by Emeric Switch
–  One Thousand Magical Herbs and Fungi by Phyllida Spore       (PS/SS page 66)

To Tell Us about Certain Authors

We meet several authors during the seven volumes of the series, but the two we spend the most time with are Gilderoy Lockhart and Rita Skeeter.  In each case one of the ways Rowling tells us about the author is to show us the titles of their books.

For Gilderoy Lockhart that’s:
–  Break with a Banshee
–  Gadding with Ghouls
–  Gilderoy Lockhart’s Guide to Household Pests
–  Holidays with Hags
–  Magical Me
– Travels with Trolls
–  Voyages with Vampires
–  Wanderings with Werewolves
–  Year with the Yeti

For Rita Skeeter, within the seven novels, the only two book titles we encounter are The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore and Armando Dippet: Master or Moron?  However, we do learn about the nasty articles she has written for the Daily Prophet and Witch Weekly.  And in Pottermore we have learned about three more books which seem continue her search for the dark side of every story:
–  Biography of Harry Potter with unknown title (1998)
–  Snape: Scoundrel or Saint?
–  Dumbledore’s Army: The Dark Side of the Demob

Clearly Rowling is telling us something about these authors.  When we read a book about Jack written by Joe, sure we learn about Jack (the subject) but between the lines we also learn a lot about Joe (the author.)

While we’re on the subject of authors, let us note that Rowling portrays both of these authors – and Eldred Worple, author of Blood Brothers: My Life Amongst the Vampires, whom we meet at Slughorn’s Christmas party (HBP page 314) — as excessively concerned with how much money they can make and how many books they can sell.


How the Book Using Skills of the Three Grow in the Series

One of the most commonplace observations about the HP novels is that they are a Bildungsroman, that is, a story about coming of age.  It is therefore to be expected that we see our main characters become ever more skilled in their use of books as the series unfolds.  And this is indeed what happens.  This is most obviously true of Hermione, but it happens for the boys as well.

In Harry Potter and the Philosophy’s Stone

As noted previously, Harry did not have books of his own – not even library books – before Hagrid’s visit.  And yet he seems to be a reasonably good reader for an 11 year old boy.

When Harry first visits Diagon Alley, we see something of his attitude towards books:

They bought Harry’s school books in a shop called Flourish and Blotts where the shelves were stacked to the ceiling with books as large as paving stones bound in leather; books the size of postage stamps in covers of silk; books full of peculiar symbols and a few books with nothing in them at all. Even Dudley, who never read anything, would have been wild to get his hands on some of these. Hagrid almost had to drag Harry away from Curses and Counter-curses (Bewitch Your Friends and Befuddle Your Enemies with the Latest Revenges: Hair Loss, Jelly-Legs, Tongue-Tying and Much, Much More) by Professor Vindictus Viridian.

Harry reacts as any curious reader would in a really good bookstore.  (I can’t help but notice that, from the description of it, Diagon Alley is not that far from Foyles bookshop at 107 Charing Cross, which is either the first or second largest bookstore in London and has been a Mecca for bibliophiles for decades.  Indeed, the entrance for the Leaky Cauldron is described as being between a big book shop and a record shop.  PS/SS page 67)  When Harry gets home from that shopping trip, he looks through the books he has acquired.  That’s how he finds the name Hedwig for his owl. (PS/SS page 88)  So at this point we could say that Harry is a basically competent and curious reader, but no more than that.

Then we meet Hermione on the Hogwarts Express.  As part of her rapid-fire introduction of herself to Ron and Harry she says “I’ve learned all our course books by heart, of course, I just hope it will be enough.”  (PS/SS page 105)  From this remark we can draw several conclusions about Hermione as a reader:

  1. She is intense about it.  She hasn’t just read their textbooks, she has memorized them.
  2. She equates memorization with learning.
  3. She apparently accepts the textbooks as authoritative.  If something is in the book, it must be true and must be important.

The intensity of her reading habits will remain, but as she matures we will see a more nuanced understanding of books and learning.

A moment after this, when she learns that one of the boys she’s talking to is the famous Harry Potter, Hermione gives us another revealing little speech:

“Are you really?” said Hermione. “I know all about you, of course — I got a few extra books for background reading, and you’re in Modern Magical History and The Rise and Fall of the Dark Arts and Great Wizarding Events of the Twentieth Century.”  (PS/SS page 106)

A few pages earlier Ron – and his brothers – were equally impressed to meet Harry, but there’s a difference.  Hermione knows about Harry because she’s read about him; the Weasley boys know about Harry because they were raised in the wizarding world.  This is the first instance of a difference we will see between Hermione and Ron several times: Ron knows things because he was raised in the wizarding world; Hermione learns about things by reading about them.  (Consider, for instance, The Tales of Beedle the Bard.)

Notice also that Hermione says that she “knows all about” Harry – which carries the rash assumption that all the facts about a person can be contained in a book.  She becomes wiser by the end of the series.

The next indication we have of Hermione’s relationship with books is that she becomes very nervous before their first flying lesson:

Hermione Granger was almost as nervous about flying as Neville was. This was something you couldn’t learn by heart out of a book — not that she hadn’t tried. At breakfast on Thursday she bored them all stupid with flying tips she’d gotten out of a library book called Quidditch through the Ages. Neville was hanging on to her every word, desperate for anything that might help him hang on to his broomstick later, but everybody else was very pleased when Hermione’s lecture was interrupted by the arrival of the mail. (PS/SS page 144)

We’ll see this issue again – on the limits of book learning – later on in the series.

One of the final comments we have from Hermione about books in PS/SS happens when they’re getting ready to go through the trap door: “I’d better go and look through my books; there might be something useful.” (PS/SS page 271)  She still seems to be largely devoted to the idea that (all?) knowledge and truth is to be found in books.

In most of the HP novels there is a great library search.  In PS/SS, it’s the search to find Nicolas Flamel.  In connection with that search, we get a hint about Ron’s reading habits:

Hermione took out a list of subjects and titles she had decided to search while Ron strode off down a row of books and started pulling them off the shelves at random. (PS/SS page 198)

An interesting difference in approaches.

In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

The most important development in COS for the book handling skill of the three is, obviously, the discovery that Gilderoy Lockhart is a fraud.  Interestingly, it is Hermione (the most skilled reader) who is most taken in by Lockhart and Ron (the least skilled reader) who first voices skepticism.  No doubt Hermione’s lapse is explained by her schoolgirl crush on Lockhart.

Here’s the scene at the end of their first memorable class when Lockhart released the pixies:

The bell rang and there was a mad rush toward the exit. In the relative calm that followed, Lockhart straightened up, caught sight of Harry, Ron, and Hermione, who were almost at the door, and said, “Well, I’ll ask you three to just nip the rest of them back into their cage.” He swept past them and shut the door quickly behind him.

“Can you believe him?” roared Ron as one of the remaining pixies bit him painfully on the ear.

“He just wants to give us some hands-on experience,” said Hermione, immobilizing two pixies at once with a clever Freezing Charm and stuffing them back into their cage.

“Hands on?” said Harry, who was trying to grab a pixie dancing out of reach with its tongue out. “Hermione, he didn’t have a clue what he was doing —”

“Rubbish,” said Hermione. “You’ve read his books — look at all those amazing things he’s done —”

“He says he’s done,” Ron muttered.  (COS page 103)

Much later in COS, of course, Ron and Harry hear what is surely Lockhart’s most educational lecture ever:

“You mean you’re running away?” said Harry disbelievingly. “After all that stuff you did in your books —”

“Books can be misleading,” said Lockhart delicately.

“You wrote them!” Harry shouted. “My dear boy,” said Lockhart, straightening up and frowning at Harry. “Do use your common sense. My books wouldn’t have sold half as well if people didn’t think I’d done all those things. No one wants to read about some ugly old Armenian warlock, even if he did save a village from werewolves. He’d look dreadful on the front cover. No dress sense at all. And the witch who banished the Bandon Banshee had a hairy chin. I mean, come on —”

“So you’ve just been taking credit for what a load of other people have done?” said Harry incredulously.

“Harry, Harry,” said Lockhart, shaking his head impatiently, “it’s not nearly as simple as that. There was work involved. I had to track these people down. Ask them exactly how they managed to do what they did. Then I had to put a Memory Charm on them so they wouldn’t remember doing it. If there’s one thing I pride myself on, it’s my Memory Charms. No, it’s been a lot of work, Harry. It’s not all book signings and publicity photos , you know. You want fame, you have to be prepared for a long hard slog.” (COS pages 297-298)

No doubt this conversation was later described to Hermione, and that would have been an interesting scene to see. No doubt Hermione learned from this to be a bit more skeptical about the claims in books and the importance of knowing about the author.

Hermione continues to show her superior reading skills by correctly brewing the polyjuice potion even though it is the most complicated potion she’s ever seen.  (COS page 164).

The most interesting discussion of books in COS happens in Moaning Myrtle’s bathroom when Ron and Harry first encounter Tom Riddle’s diary:

Harry and Ron looked under the sink where Myrtle was pointing. A small, thin book lay there. It had a shabby black cover and was as wet as everything else in the bathroom. Harry stepped forward to pick it up, but Ron suddenly flung out an arm to hold him back.

“What?” said Harry.

“Are you crazy?” said Ron. “It could be dangerous.”

“Dangerous?” said Harry, laughing. “Come off it, how could it be dangerous?”

“You’d be surprised,” said Ron, who was looking apprehensively at the book. “Some of the books the Ministry’s confiscated — Dad’s told me — there was one that burned your eyes out. And everyone who read Sonnets of a Sorcerer spoke in limericks for the rest of their lives. And some old witch in Bath had a book that you could never stop reading! You just had to wander around with your nose in it, trying to do everything one-handed. And —”

“All right, I’ve got the point,” said Harry.

The little book lay on the floor, nondescript and soggy.

“Well, we won’t find out unless we look at it,” he said, and he ducked around Ron and picked it up off the floor. (COS pages 230-231)

I think there may be two lessons here.  For our characters, in the magical world, books can, in fact, be dangerous – as this book turns out to be.  For us Muggles, in the non-magical world, this passage may be an answer to all would-be censors: Since we don’t, in our world, have books that can carry such curses, what’s the point of censorship?  Do the censors really think that a mere Muggle book is going to burn out a reader’s eyes or destroy the reader’s brain?

The one other significant bit of learning about book in COS involves Ginny Weasley who was taken in – and almost killed – by Tom Riddle’s diary.  She tries – and fails – in her attempts to break free from the book, in a struggle that reminders me of alcoholism.  After Ginny has been rescued, her father Arthur scolds her (slightly):

“Ginny!” said Mr. Weasley, flabbergasted. “Haven’t I taught you anything? What have I always told you? Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain. Why didn’t you show the diary to me, or your mother? A suspicious object like that, it was clearly full of Dark Magic —”  (COS pages 329-330)

I’m not sure how to interpret this little speech of Mr. Weasley and how it might apply – if at all – in our Muggle world.  In our Muggle world books don’t think for themselves – at least not yet.  Perhaps this could be taken as a general warning that when reading a book (especially a book on a controversial subject such as climate change) one ought to find out the viewpoint, biases, and vested interests of the author.

Let us note in passing that Tom Riddle’s diary is a horcrux (as we later discover.)  This brings a whole new dimension to the cliché about an author putting his soul into a book.  And we do sometimes speak of classic authors as being “immortal” because of their books.

In COS the great library search is to find out about the Chamber of Secrets, but they can’t because all the copies of Hogwarts a History are checked out.  And Hermione left her copy at home because there wasn’t room enough in her trunk with all of Lockhart’s books.  (COS page 147)  My wife, a librarian, cites this as an example of bad books crowding out or displacing good ones.

In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Without a doubt the most interesting book in POA is The Monster Book of Monsters.  Hagrid assigns it for his Care of Magical Creatures class and is then dumbfounded when no one knows how to use it:

“Everyone gather ’round the fence here !” he called. “That’s it — make sure yeh can see — now, firs’ thing yeh’ll want ter do is open yer books —”

“How?” said the cold, drawling voice of Draco Malfoy.

“Eh?” said Hagrid. “How do we open our books?” Malfoy repeated. He took out his copy of The Monster Book of Monsters, which he had bound shut with a length of rope. Other people took theirs out too; some, like Harry, had belted their book shut; others had crammed them inside tight bags or clamped them together with binder clips.

“Hasn’ — hasn’ anyone bin able ter open their books?” said Hagrid, looking crestfallen.

The class all shook their heads.

“Yeh’ve got ter stroke ’em ,” said Hagrid , as though this was the most obvious thing in the world. “Look —”

He took Hermione’s copy and ripped off the Spellotape that bound it. The book tried to bite, but Hagrid ran a giant forefinger down its spine, and the book shivered, and then fell open and lay quiet in his hand.

“Oh, how silly we’ve all been!” Malfoy sneered. “We should have stroked them! Why didn’t we guess!”

“I — I thought they were funny,” Hagrid said uncertainly to Hermione.

“Oh, tremendously funny!” said Malfoy. “Really witty, giving us books that try and rip our hands off!” (POA pages 112-113)

I see at least three possible interpretations or lessons here:

  1. Perhaps this is just one of Rowling’s little jokes to introduce the storyline of Hagrid as a teacher.  As Ron remarks when they first learn at the welcoming feast that Hagrid will be teacher “We should’ve known!” Ron roared, pounding the table. “Who else would have assigned us a biting book?”  (POA page 93)
  2. Perhaps this is just an example of the idea that to deal with a book effectively you have to deal with it on its terms.  If it is a romance, for example, you have to – at least while reading the book – accept the conventions of romance novels.  If it is a theological treatise, you must accept its theological viewpoint for a while.  Once you have absorbed the book, of course, then critical reflection should begin.  You can then critique and disagree with the book all you want of the basis of knowing what it actually says.  (I am indebted to my friend and fellow HP fan Dr. Susan Fralick-Ball for this interpretation.)
  3. Perhaps this is just a joke about how teachers sometimes assign a book for a class which is beyond what the students can handle.  Most of us who have been through graduate school have encountered this at least once.

While The Monster Book of Monsters is great fun, the most significant activity in POA for the development of the trio’s skill with using books is probably their long search through the library as they prepare Buckbeck’s defense.  That’s the great library search in this novel.  Although Hermione does this job alone at first, after the first ruling against Buckbeck Harry and Ron join in the effort too.

One other important revelation for Hermione in this novel comes from Professor Trelawney:

Professor Trelawney delicately rearranged her shawl and continued, “So you have chosen to study Divination, the most difficult of all magical arts. I must warn you at the outset that if you do not have the Sight, there is very little I will be able to teach you. Books can take you only so far in this field. . . .”

At these words, both Harry and Ron glanced, grinning, at Hermione, who looked startled at the news that books wouldn’t be much help in this subject.  (POA page 103)

No doubt this pronouncement by Professor Trelawney contributes to Hermione’s eventual decision to drop the subject.


In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

There are two great library searches in this novel: first the unsuccessful search before the second task for information about how to breathe underwater.  The second apparently more successful search is for curses and useful spells just before the third task.  All three of our heroes participate in both searches.  They should be getting good at this by now.

Aside from the library searches, there are two major developments in terms of understanding how writing works.

The first development mostly affects Hermione:

(Hermione) noticed them all looking at her and said, with her usual air of impatience that nobody else had read all the books she had, “It’s all in Hogwarts: A History. Though, of course, that book’s not entirely reliable. A Revised History of Hogwarts would be a more accurate title. Or A Highly Biased and Selective History of Hogwarts, Which Glosses Over the Nastier Aspects of the School.”

“What are you on about?” said Ron, though Harry thought he knew what was coming.

“House-elves!” said Hermione, her eyes flashing. “Not once, in over a thousand pages, does Hogwarts: A History mention that we are all colluding in the oppression of a hundred slaves!”  (GOF page 238)

We can feel her skepticism about books growing.

The second development affects both Harry and Hermione.  They discover how much an author can distort a story.  It is, of course, their experience with Rita Skeeter’s reporting that shows them this.  And the two of them, but especially Hermione, learn how much harm can be caused by false or distorted stories.

This leads to a deeper understanding of writing: Behind any given piece of text there is a writer – a human being – and when we read the text we are dealing with that person.  Harry shows this understanding in the scene in the hospital wing near the end of GOF:

“When Harry touched the Triwizard Cup tonight, he was transported straight to Voldemort,” said Dumbledore steadily. “He witnessed Lord Voldemort’s rebirth. I will explain it all to you if you will step up to my office.”

Dumbledore glanced around at Harry and saw that he was awake, but shook his head and said, “I am afraid I cannot permit you to question Harry tonight.”

Fudge’s curious smile lingered. He too glanced at Harry, then looked back at Dumbledore, and said, “You are — er — prepared to take Harry’s word on this, are you, Dumbledore?”

There was a moment’s silence, which was broken by Sirius growling. His hackles were raised, and he was baring his teeth at Fudge.

“Certainly, I believe Harry,” said Dumbledore. His eyes were blazing now. “I heard Crouch’s confession, and I heard Harry’s account of what happened after he touched the Triwizard Cup; the two stories make sense, they explain everything that has happened since Bertha Jorkins disappeared last summer.”

Fudge still had that strange smile on his face. Once again, he glanced at Harry before answering. “You are prepared to believe that Lord Voldemort has returned, on the word of a lunatic murderer, and a boy who . . . well . . .”

Fudge shot Harry another look, and Harry suddenly understood.

“You’ve been reading Rita Skeeter, Mr. Fudge,” he said quietly.  (GOF pages 704-705)

Harry’s choice of words is quite clear: It is not “You’ve been reading stories” or even “You’ve been reading the Daily Prophet.”  Harry gets it: Fudge has been reading Rita Skeeter.


In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

In terms of book handling skills, there are three major developments in OOP.

The first involves the conflict between Dolorus Umbridge and Hermione about how to handle a textbook.  (This is after they have already clashed about what the goals of the DADA class should be.) Professor Umbridge’s stance is that the textbook contains the whole truth and, as she repeats at the beginning of each class, “there will be no need to talk” – just read and remember the text.  This approach might indeed have satisfied Hermione in her first year, but now she wants dialog and discussion:

“I’ve read that too. I’ve read the whole book.”

Professor Umbridge blinked but recovered her poise almost instantly.

“Well, then, you should be able to tell me what Slinkhard says about counterjinxes in chapter fifteen.”

“He says that counterjinxes are improperly named,” said Hermione promptly. “He says ‘counterjinx’ is just a name people give their jinxes when they want to make them sound more acceptable.”

Professor Umbridge raised her eyebrows, and Harry knew she was impressed against her will.

“But I disagree,” Hermione continued.

Professor Umbridge’s eyebrows rose a little higher and her gaze became distinctly colder.

“You disagree?”

“Yes, I do,” said Hermione, who, unlike Umbridge, was not whispering, but speaking in a clear, carrying voice that had by now attracted the rest of the class’s attention. “Mr. Slinkhard doesn’t like jinxes, does he? But I think they can be very useful when they’re used defensively.”

“Oh, you do, do you?” said Professor Umbridge, forgetting to whisper and straightening up. “Well, I’m afraid it is Mr. Slinkhard’s opinion, and not yours, that matters within this classroom, Miss Granger.”

“But —” Hermione began.

“That is enough,” said Professor Umbridge. She walked back to the front of the class and stood before them, all the jauntiness she had shown at the beginning of the lesson gone. “Miss Granger, I am going to take five points from Gryffindor House.”

There was an outbreak of muttering at this.

“What for?” said Harry angrily.

“Don’t you get involved!” Hermione whispered urgently to him.

“For disrupting my class with pointless interruptions,” said Professor Umbridge smoothly. “I am here to teach you using a Ministry-approved method that does not include inviting students to give their opinions on matters about which they understand very little. (OOP pages 316-317 emphasis added)

What Hermione sees as engagement with the book Umbridge sees as a challenge to authority.  That’s a conflict.

The second development showing that Hermione now has a better understanding of how writing works involves getting out the story of Voldemort’s return.  Notice that Hermione doesn’t do this right away at the beginning of the school year; she waits until the time is right:

Rita stared at (Hermione and Harry) for a moment and then let out a great whoop of laughter.

“The Quibbler!” she said, cackling. “You think people will take him seriously if he’s published in The Quibbler?”

“Some people won’t,” said Hermione in a level voice. “But the Daily Prophet’s version of the Azkaban breakout had some gaping holes in it. I think a lot of people will be wondering whether there isn’t a better explanation of what happened, and if there’s an alternative story available, even if it is published in a” — she glanced sideways at Luna, “in a — well, an unusual magazine — I think they might be rather keen to read it.” (OOP 568-569 emphasis added)

What Hermione understands – and Umbridge does not – is that when there are two conflicting stories, you win not by suppressing the other story but by having a better story.

The third development is that Hermione – our book-loving and book-using heroine – has come to understand and embrace the limitations of books.  Back in PS/SS she was nervous as she approached flying because she couldn’t learn it from a book.  And in POA she was startled to hear that books would not help her learn divination.  But now in OOP when she first suggests that Harry should teach the other students to defend themselves:

We’ve gone past the stage where we can just learn things out of books,” said Hermione. “We need a teacher, a proper one, who can show us how to use the spells and correct us if we’re going wrong.” (OOP page 325)

Hermione has known the power of books for some time.  Now she also knows their limitations.

In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

The main issue with books in HBP is, of course, the Prince’s copy of Advanced Potion Making.

Hermione does not trust the Prince’s annotations and additions to what she regards as the “official” text even though she sees, repeatedly, that those annotations allow Harry to beat her.  But the reason Hermione distrusts the Prince is not simply jealousy – though that seems to be part of it.  Hermione distrusts the Prince because she doesn’t know who he is.

Hermione has learned – particularly from her experience with Lockhart and Skeeter – that it is important to know authors – who they are, what their motivations are, which viewpoints they have, etc. Thus the first great library search in this novel is to discover who the Prince is.  And of course in the end she – and we – discover that the Prince is Snape.

The importance of knowing who the Prince is shows up in one interesting detail of Hermione’s behavior.  One of the useful spells that the Prince invented was the Muffliato charm “a spell that filled the ears of anyone nearby with an unidentifiable buzzing, so that lengthy conversations could be held in class without being overheard.” (HBP page 238)   Before the identity of the Prince is known, Hermione disapproved of this spell so strongly that “(she) refused to talk at all if Harry had used the Muffliato spell on anyone in the vicinity.” (HBP page 238)  However, in DH, after the identity of the Prince is known, Hermione uses this spell repeatedly.  It is one of the standard spells they cast around their tent when they’re on the run.  When Hermione first uses this spell, at the Burrow, Ron questions her about it saying “I thought you didn’t approve of that spell.”  Hermione replies simply “Times change.”  (DH page 132)  One of the things that has changed, of course, is that now the spell is of known authorship.

There is a second great library search in HBP, the search to find out about Horcruxes.  But more on that later.


In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

In this final volume of the series we see our heroes as skilled readers

The first evidence of this is what can be taken as a bit of comedy.  For Harry’s seventeenth birthday Ron gives him a copy of Twelve Fail-Safe Ways to Charm Witches with this explanation:

“This isn’t your average book,” said Ron. “It’s pure gold: Twelve Fail-Safe Ways to Charm Witches. Explains everything you need to know about girls.  If only I’d had this last year I’d have known exactly how to get rid of Lavender and I would’ve known how to get going with…  Well, Fred and George gave me a copy, and I’ve learned a lot.  You’d be surprised; it’s not all about wandwork, either.”  (DH, page 113)

Since, by the end of DH, Ron has won Hermione’s love, we can say that Ron apparently knows how to learn important things from a book.  I’ll take that as evidence that he has become a skilled reader.


In chapter 6 (The Ghoul in Pajamas) of DH Hermione sits in Ron’s bedroom sorting books into two piles, one pile to take with them on their hunt for the Horcruxes and one pile to discard:

She threw Numerology and Grammatica onto one pile and The Rise and Fall of the Dark Arts onto the other.

The three are doing several other things in this chapter – wondering if Mad Eye might be alive, discussing Horcruxes, showing Harry the Ghoul – but let’s concentrate on the sorting of the books.  Hermione clearly understand that these books are tools, and she’s only going to keep the useful ones.

Hermione (looked) down at Spellman’s Syllabary. “I wonder . . . will we need to translate runes? It’s possible. . . . I think we’d better take it, to be safe.”

Sometimes the choice is just guided by a feeling:

“You know, I think I will take Hogwarts, A History. Even if we’re not going back there, I don’t think I’d feel right if I didn’t have it with (me.)”

Sometimes the choice is clear:

Hermione (slammed) Travels with Trolls onto the discarded pile with a rather fierce look.

Sometimes the choice is very easy:

Hermione (tossed) Defensive Magical Theory into the bin without a second glance.

Hermione makes choices, and chooses to get rid of certain books.  This is a mature user of books.


Harry has become a skilled reader as well.  Consider his careful reading and re-reading of the letter he finds from his mother in Sirius’s bedroom:

Harry’s extremities seemed to have gone numb. He stood quite still, holding the miraculous paper in his nerveless fingers while inside him a kind of quiet eruption sent joy and grief thundering in equal measure through his veins. Lurching to the bed, he sat down.

Impatiently brushing away the wetness in his eyes, he reread the letter, this time concentrating on the meaning. It was like listening to a half-remembered voice.

They had had a cat . . . perhaps it had perished, like his parents, at Godric’s Hollow . . . or else fled when there was nobody left to feed it. . . . Sirius had bought him his first broomstick . . . . His parents had known Bathilda Bagshot ; had Dumbledore introduced them? Dumbledore’s still got his Invisibility Cloak . . . There was something funny there. . . .

Harry paused, pondering his mother’s words. Why had Dumbledore taken James’s Invisibility Cloak? Harry distinctly remembered his headmaster telling him years before, “I don’t need a cloak to become invisible.” Perhaps some less gifted Order member had needed its assistance, and Dumbledore had acted as carrier? Harry passed on. . . .

Wormy was here . . . Pettigrew, the traitor, had seemed “down,” had he? Was he aware that he was seeing James and Lily alive for the last time?

And finally Bathilda again, who told incredible stories about Dumbledore. It seems incredible that Dumbledore —

That Dumbledore what? But there were any number of things that would seem incredible about Dumbledore; that he had once received bottom marks in a Transfiguration test, for instance, or had taken up goat-charming like Aberforth. . . .

Obvious Harry now knows how to think carefully about something he reads.


Although Hermione’s skepticism about books has been growing through the series, it is clear that she still regards that written word as the normal and normative way to accumulate and organize knowledge.  This is demonstrated by a small panic attack that she shows us as they are observing the Ministry of Magic in preparation for their foray into it:

“Dad always told us most Ministry people use the Floo Network to get to work,” Ron said. “That’s why we haven’t seen Umbridge, she’d never walk, she’d think she’s too important.”

“And what about that funny old witch and that little wizard in the navy robes?” Hermione asked.

“Oh yeah, the bloke from Magical Maintenance,” said Ron.

“How do you know he works for Magical Maintenance?” Hermione asked, her soupspoon suspended in midair.

“Dad said everyone from Magical Maintenance wears navy blue robes.”

“But you never told us that!”

Hermione dropped her spoon and pulled toward her the sheaf of notes and maps that she and Ron had been examining when Harry had entered the kitchen.

“There’s nothing in here about navy blue robes, nothing!” she said, flipping feverishly through the pages.

“Well, does it really matter?”

“Ron, it all matters! If we’re going to get into the Ministry and not give ourselves away when they’re bound to be on the lookout for intruders, every little detail matters! We’ve been over and over this, I mean, what’s the point of all these reconnaissance trips if you aren’t even bothering to tell us —”

“Blimey, Hermione, I forget one little thing —”

“You do realize, don’t you, that there’s probably no more dangerous place in the whole world for us to be right now than the Ministry of —”

“I think we should do it tomorrow,” said Harry. (DH pages 229-230)

Notice that it’s only Harry sudden announcement that interrupts Hermione’s panic attack.  Hermione is not just a reader.  She uses writing to organize her life.


The final big challenge for the three, of course, is The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore.  But this is more than a reading challenge, more than just deciding not to trust certain things in the book because it’s written by Rita Skeeter. This is – at least for Harry – the ultimate faith challenge of the series and he confronts it (Horcruxes or Hallows) while digging Dobby’s grave.


What We Can Learn to Become Better Readers Ourselves

So given that Rowling is a master of how to deal with books, what can we learn for ourselves as readers?  Or more narrowly, as readers of non-fiction because, as mentioned above, The Tales of Beedle the Bard is the only fiction book mentioned.  (More on that later.)

Books are Important

The first, and obvious, lesson about non-fiction books in these novels is that books are important.  This is a platitude, of course, affirmed by generations of teachers, librarians, and bibliophiles.  Hermione is always running off to the library to track down needed information – for instance, figuring out that Slytherin’s monster is a Basilisk.  Harry learns much from the Prince’s copy of Advanced Potion Making.  Apparently Ron even learns how to “get going” with Hermione from Twelve Fail-Safe Ways to Charm Witches.

Further, when a piece of information is in a book this somehow makes it seem more real.  We are more inclined to believe something when we see it in print.  This is why Hermione refers to Libatius Borage’s printed instructions in Advanced Potion-Making as the “official” instructions and distrust’s the Prince’s handwritten variations.

Books are the normal – and normative – way that knowledge is accumulated from one generation to the next.  Sir Isaac Newton famously wrote in a letter to Robert Hooke “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”  Books are how that “standing on the shoulders of giants” is made possible.

But this is not the whole story…


Books are not always reliable

We – and Hermione – learn that non-fiction books are not always reliable when we discover the truth about Gilderoy Lockhart’s books: The marvelous feats described in these books are true, but they weren’t done by Gilderoy Lockhart.  This lesson about the fallibility of books is reinforced by the discovery that house-elves are never mentioned in Hogwarts: A History and is demonstrated again in The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore.  (No, Miss Skeeter; Ariana was not a squib, nor was she being kept a prisoner.)

Further, we learn something about why a book may be unreliable:

  • A book may be unreliable because the author is more concerned about sales than about the truth. This is clearly the case with Rita Skeeter’s book about Dumbledore and, we have to suspect, with her earlier book (about Dumbledore’s predecessor as headmaster) Armando Dippet: Master or Moron?  Newspapers can be unreliable for the same reason, as Rita Skeeter clearly explains to Hermione in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  In chapter 25, The Beetle at Bay, they are discussing the story that Hermione wants Rita to write about the night when Voldemort came back and the two of them have this illuminating exchange:

“There’s no market for a story like that,” said Rita coldly.

“You mean the Prophet won’t print it because Fudge won’t let them,” said Hermione irritably.

Rita gave Hermione a long, hard look. Then, leaning forwards across the table towards her, she said in a businesslike tone, “All right, Fudge is leaning on the Prophet, but it comes to the same thing. They won’t print a story that shows Harry in a good light. Nobody wants to read it. It’s against the public mood. This last Azkaban breakout has got people quite worried enough.  People just don’t want to believe You-Know-Who’s back.”

“So the Daily Prophet exists to tell people what they want to hear, does it?” said Hermione scathingly.

Rita sat up straight again, her eyebrows raised, and drained her glass of Firewhisky.

“The Prophet exists to sell itself, you silly girl,” she said coldly.

Rowling probably intended us to notice the pun that “prophet” can also be spelled as “profit.”  Daily indeed.

We should notice how a book is promoted and ask whether the author may have had a reason to shade the truth in order to have more sales.

  • A book may be unreliable because the author is a narcissistic glory hog. Gilderoy Lockhart is not the only person who elaborates on the truth to make himself look better.  We should be suspicious of books where the author is the hero.
  • A book may be written from a certain point of view, and that point of view leads the author to include topics in – or exclude topics from – the book. This is why Hogwarts: A History makes no mention of house-elves.  It is a book written by and for wizards and most wizards just don’t care about house-elves.  This may also explain why boggarts are not mentioned in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.  The author appears to have assumed that the readers would already be familiar with boggarts and so did not bother to explain them.  Conclusion: we should determine a book’s viewpoint in order to understand the book.
  • Finally, although an author may be honest and a book generally reliable, the book may still be incorrect on some detail simply because the author is mistaken or out of date. Books do not fall from heaven.  They are the products of more or less normal human beings, not infallible angels.  (More on that later.)  Thus the book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them asserts that there have been no sightings of Basilisks in Britain for 400 years.  We – and Harry – know to the contrary.


Books can Give Power

The right non-fiction books can give you power.  Because Hermione learns how to make Polyjuice Potion – from a book – Ron and Harry are able to enter the Slytherin common room.  From the Prince’s annotations in the Advanced Potion-Making textbook Harry learns how to use a bezoar to save Ron’s life.  And Molly Weasley uses a copy of The Healer’s Helpmate to learn how to fix cuts and bruises.

The other side of this is that when Dolores Umbridge wants to makes sure that Hogwarts students are powerless, one of her first steps is to switch to a powerless textbook for the Defense Against the Dark Arts class.  That text, Defensive Magical Theory by Wilbert Slinkhard, turns out to be all theory and no practice.  Dissatisfaction with that textbook is one of the main reasons that the three form Dumbledore’s Army.  And the first time that the DA meets for practice in the Room of Requirements, the room obligingly provides what they need:

“And just look at these books!” said Hermione excitedly, running a finger along the spines of the large leather-bound tomes. “A Compendium of Common Curses and their Counter-Actions… The Dark Arts Outsmarted… Self-Defensive Spellwork… wow…” She looked around at Harry, her face glowing, and he saw that the presence of hundreds of books had finally convinced Hermione that what they were doing was right. “Harry, this is wonderful, there’s everything we need here!”

And without further ado she slid ‘Jinxes for the Jinxed’ from its shelf, sank on to the nearest cushion and began to read.

In its magical wisdom, the Room of Requirements knows that powerful books are requirted.


Books (Sometimes) are Not Enough

In spite of the generally powerful role given to non-fiction books in the Harry Potter novels, we are reminded several times that books sometimes are not enough.

Early on in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone Hagrid tells Harry about Professor Quirrell:
“Poor bloke. Brilliant mind. He was fine while he was studyin’ outta books but then he took a year off ter get some first-hand experience. . .   They say he met vampires in the Black Forest, and there was a nasty bit o’ trouble with a hag — never been the same since. Scared of the students, scared of his own subject.”  (SS pages 70-71)

Later on in the same book, as Harry is about to enter the last chamber and confront Snape (he believes), Harry and Hermione have a memorable conversation:

“Harry — you’re a great wizard, you know.”
“I’m not as good as you,” said Harry, very embarrassed, as she let go of him.
“Me!” said Hermione. “Books! And cleverness! There are more important things — friendship and bravery and — oh Harry — be careful!” (SS page 287)

As mentioned previously, Hermione discovers in connection with flying (in PS/SS) and in connection with divination (in POA) that not everything can be learned from a book.  By the time she’s organizing the DA in Order of the Phoenix, she is the one telling Ron and Harry that “we’ve gone past the stage where we can just learn things out of books. We need a teacher, a proper one, who can show us how to use the spells and correct us if we’re going wrong.” (OOP page 325)

Conclusion: As readers, we need to know when to stop reading and deal with the world more directly.


Books are Tools

The library for Hermione is not a temple, it is a workroom.  Non-fiction books are not objects of worship, they are tools.  Two incidents show this attitude very clearly:

In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, in Chapter 18 (Birthday Surprises) Hermione has been trying to learn about Horcruxes in the library without success.  Notice her attitude towards the one book that mentions them in passing:

“I haven’t found one single explanation of what Horcruxes do!” she told him. “Not a single one! I’ve been right through the restricted section and even in the most horrible books, where they tell you how to brew the most gruesome potions — nothing! All I could find was this, in the introduction to Magick Moste Evile — listen — ‘Of the Horcrux, wickedest of magical inventions, we shall not speak nor give direction. . . .’ I mean, why mention it then?” she said impatiently, slamming the old book shut; it let out a ghostly wail. “Oh, shut up,” she snapped, stuffing it back into her bag. (HBP page 381)

Hermione has no time for tools that don’t work.  As mentioned previously, this attitude shows up again in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows as Hermione is sorting out the books she want to take with them on their coming hunt.

Hermione is no simple-minded bibliophile for whom all books are sacred.  Madam Pince, the Hogwarts librarian, shows that attitude.  Consider this exchange when Madam Pince sees the handwriting in the Half-Blood Prince’s copy of Advanced Potion Making:

“The library is now closed,” she said. “Mind you return anything you have borrowed to the correct — what have you been doing to that book, you depraved boy?”

“It isn’t the library’s, it’s mine!” said Harry hastily, snatching his copy of Advanced Potion-Making off the table as she lunged at it with a clawlike hand.

“Despoiled!” she hissed. “Desecrated! Befouled!”

“It’s just a book that’s been written on!” said Harry, tugging it out of her grip.

She looked as though she might have a seizure… (HBP 308)

Now that’s book worship!  (I remember a college professor explaining to us as freshmen that one of the main advantages of buying our textbooks was that we were then able to write comments in them and those comments would make those books more valuable for us.  The same point is made by Mortimer Adler in his classic How to Read a Book.)


Behind a Book Stands an Author

Along with Hermione (and other characters) we can remember that a book is the product of a particular author and so will be shaped by the personality and orientation of that author.  This applies to both fiction and non-fiction books, obviously.  Even in my technical reading, there are certain writers whose books I will seek out because I have had good experiences with their other books.

Our understanding of a book may be improved by knowing more about the author.  Notice how much we in the HP fandom know about J. K. Rowling’s life.


Books are Sometimes Preferable to a Human Instructor

Why is it that Harry could learn things from the Prince’s copy of Advanced Potion Making that he couldn’t learn from Snape?  Harry’s statement that he has learned more from the Prince than from Snape and Slughorn (HBP page 305) has got to qualify as one of the most ironic statements in the whole series.

Harry could learn from the Prince, of course, because the book essentially insulated him from Snape’s personality.  When there is less personal interaction, that often makes it possible to be more involved with the material and less distracted by your feelings about the author or teacher.

Books are more patient than any human instructor could be.  A book doesn’t care how many times you re-read a page.

Many of us learned about “the facts of life” from a book because we and/or our parents were too embarrassed to discuss it directly.

Consider also the memorable time when Hermione tried to explain to Harry (with Ron listening in) why Cho was crying when they kissed.  (OOP 457-459)  As you will recall, that conversation ends with Hermione telling Ron that he has “the emotional range of a teaspoon.”  Obviously Ron’s not going to learn about girls from Hermione.  Fortunately on his seventeenth birthday he receives a copy of Twelve Fail-Safe Ways to Charm Witches and apparently he does learn about girls from that.  (I’ve sometimes wondered if Hermione, who knows books so well, didn’t slip that book to Fred and George in the first place and suggest that they give it to Ron.)

Books may be Half Good / Half Bad

Though it is tempting to think about books such as Defensive Magical Theory as bad or worthless and books such as The Healer’s Helpmate as good, the truth is more complicated than that.

Even though she’s got some of her facts wrong, we do learn a lot about Dumbledore’s life from Rita Skeeter’s book about him.  She got some of her facts right.

Even though she knows the truth about Gilderoy Lockhart’s exaggerations, Molly Weasley still consults Gilderoy Lockhart’s Guide to Household Pests before they deal with the doxies while cleaning out Number Twelve Grimmauld Place.  (OOP page 103)

As readers of non-fiction books, we need to be wise enough to sort out the truth from the mistakes and know that most books will contain both.


Fiction Books are Different

Rowling, our master of how to deal with books, gives us only one example in the HP novels of our characters dealing with a fiction book.   That book, of course, is The Tales of Beedle the Bard which Dumbledore leaves to Hermione.  Still, from that one example, there are some things we can learn:

  1. Don’t underestimate a book because it’s intended for children.  As our characters learn, important truths can be wrapped in a children’s story.  I recall that the parables of Jesus are routinely used in Sunday school lessons even for the youngest children.
  2. Don’t underestimate a book because it’s a fantasy.  I’ve heard it said that sometimes a fantasy offers not an alternative to the real world but an interpretation of the real world.
  3. Read with your imagination turned on.  Somewhere I’ve heard it said that in good fiction there is more to the story than what is on the page.  There’s also what’s not on the page, what’s under the page, and what’s between the lines.
  4. A good work of fiction is worth reading more than once.  It is clear that Hermione rereads Beedle many times as they are traveling around the country.  Apparently she is getting more out of the book with each re-reading.

All of these points would be good advice for us and other Muggles in our real world who are reading the HP series.


Concluding Thought


There are books in these books.

We are in the hands of an author who knows and loves books,
– an author who is wise about books,
– an author who knows how books work,
– an author who knows how books can be used and misused.

The other day I was reviewing Mortimer Adler’s classic How to Read a Book.  Most of the points in that classic can be found and/or illustrated in the Harry Potter series.

Let’s keep reading.  And re-reading.  This is an author worth following.


  1. Louise M Freeman says

    Great post, David. You’re making me sorry I missed Misti-con. Looking forward to the podcast.

    You mentioned lack of books in Hunger Games. There are in fact three very important books, Katniss’s family plant book, Cinna’s costume book and the memory book Katniss and Peeta create as therapy. The issue is, they aren’t mass-produced, but created individually, for private use. It is almost as if Panem lost the technology that allows written material to be published, or simply forgot it in their video-centric culture. I wrote a little about that in a previous post.–thoughts-from-professor-freeman/
    The theme of lost books has been around in dystopias for a while, think Farenheit 451. The Matched series also dealt with the ramifications of forbidding written records, as well.
    It is interesting that even though she clearly treasures books, Rowling made the only two authors in the series such nasty pieces of work. And that’s not even getting to The Silkworm….
    Great post!

  2. Kathleen says

    I haven’t had the chance to read this entire delicious article so while I see books, the written word and spoken word mentioned as communication devices, I am wondering if the role of sending patronuses(with and without verbal messages) is covered?

    When I was reading this series to my children, as it came hot off the press, they responded by covering our books with paper book covers and renaming them as the school textbooks mentioned for Hogwarts – part of their play time. So precious!

  3. David Martin says

    Thank you Louise M Freeman for your correction about books in the Hunger Games. I had forgotten about those, but yes, they are important.

    Thinking about it, the role of books in dystopian novels would definitely be different than the role they have in the HP novels which, except possibly for HP book seven, are set in a more normal world. So of the other series I mentioned, perhaps only the Narnia books would be a fair comparison.

    It’s not just the authors Skeeter and Lockhart who are nasty. Check out Eldred Worple, the author we meet briefly at Slughorn’s Christmas party. It’s all about the money. And I’m about 90% sure that the name of the wizarding newspaper, The Daily Prophet, was chosen by Rowling to support an unspoken pun on the word “profit.”

  4. waynestauffer says

    regarding the lack of books in the Hunger Games series, behind the absence is the issue of literacy in the populace at large. a literate populace is much more difficult to control than an illiterate one. we do not get much information at all about what the schooling consists of for the Districts’ residents…orally transmitted directions on how to operate equipment or perform tasks limits how much people know…and works of art and philosophy would start giving people ideas about how they think they should live. in the sad time of slavery in America, literacy was a criminal offense for slaves and anyone teaching them literacy…

  5. Alison Jones says

    Thank you David for sharing! (Especially since I’ve been beating myself up for years over missing Elizabeth Baird Hardy’s presentation on books and publishing in the wizarding world – which I still wish I had been at!) I haven’t had time to read the whole thing yet, but with my own focus on Madam Pince and the library, etc, I am very excited to have it available!

  6. This was incredible. Really, really thorough. I especially like the clue about Snape’s books at Spinner’s End.

    Also, isn’t there a part in Deathly Hallows where Harry and Hermione are talking about the Tales of Beedle the Bard, and Harry says something to the effect of “Marvolo didn’t seem like the type to read bedtime stories to his kids?”

    This is fantastic, Mr. Martin. Thanks for putting this together.

  7. There are quite a few books in the Narniad as well. Nothing like the wizarding world’s extensive library, but more than in the Lord of the Rings.
    Two examples that come to mind are the bookshelf in Mr. Tumnus’s cave, where Lewis uses humorous book titles to give us an idea of the kind of world Lucy has stumbled into: “The Life and Letters of Silenus,” “Nymphs and Their Ways,” “Men, Monks, and Gamekeepers: A Study In Popular Legend,” and “Is Man A Myth?” and the magician’s book of spells in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which Lucy spends an chapter reading, alone, and which is so fascinating and enthralling that the account is not once boring.
    And then there is Uncle Andrew’s room in the Magician’s Nephew: “Every bit of the walls was lined with shelves and every bit of the shelves was full of books.” And Eustace’s diary in which he bitterly and selfishly narrates much of the Dawn Treader’s voyage. And the giant’s cookbook in The Silver Chair that contains such chilling instructions on how to cook men and marshwiggles, despite the latter’s stringy consistency and muddy flavor.
    In Narnia there are oral ballads sung at feasts, and squirrels and dwarves are sent to deliver verbal messages, but it is not lacking in books.

  8. Beatrice Groves says

    Thank you David Martin for this excellent and informative post! I have only just found it, having come late to the HogPro party, but I really enjoyed it.

    Like the other commentators I was particularly appreciative of your insight that Snape’s book-lined shelves mark him as one of the good guys, and wondered if it might be salient that this revelation of Snape’s book-appreciation comes in the only point in the series where the reader gets to see Snape without the distorting lens of Harry’s vision intervening?

    Also you express surprise that Hermione (the most skilled reader) is taken in by Lockhart while Ron (the least skilled reader) voices skepticism and suggest that ‘no doubt Hermione’s lapse is explained by her schoolgirl crush on Lockhart.’ Conversely, it might be suggested that Ron’s insight is helped along by his inchoate jealousy (just as Mr Knightley’s insight – in Austen’s Emma – that Frank Churchill might be behaving badly is spurred by the jealousy he doesn’t yet quite realise that he feels). But I also think that Hermione’s misreading here fits exactly with your narrative of Hermione’s over-reliance on books at this point in the series. She believes in Lockhart because there are lots of books proclaiming him a hero – she is not yet a sufficiently sophisticated reader to notice how her experience of him as a teacher is in conflict with the published account, and consider how this conflict might be accounted for by authorial bias.

    She learns! As you note, in Azkaban she is disconcerted by the idea of a subject (Divination) in which books will help little; in its later pair, Phoenix, she comes to what is a pretty startling conclusion for her: ‘We’ve gone past the stage where we can just learn things out of books,” said Hermione. “We need a teacher, a proper one, who can show us how to use the spells and correct us if we’re going wrong.” I think that the chiastic relationship between the paired books of the series (1+7, 2+6, 3+5) generally show some kind of move forward, or increase in depth when an idea is repeated, and this is a nice example of that: the Azkaban/Phoenix pair shows Hermione’s maturing attitude towards books (and the awakening of her understanding of the importance of a community of learning).
    Phoenix is also the novel in which Hermione displays what a (better) teacher (than Umbridge) might consider a near perfect response to her textbook. She has read and memorised all of Defensive Magical Theory (even Umbridge is impressed) and then formed her own opinion on what it contains. Hermione’s independent thought is clearly displayed, but though she questions Slinkhard’s conclusions, she has still learnt something from him. She picks up Slinkhard’s idea about the way in which naming encodes the speakers attitude towards the thing named – “He says that counterjinxes are improperly named,” said Hermione promptly. “He says ‘counterjinx’ is just a name people give their jinxes when they want to make them sound more acceptable” – and then rejects the point he is making with this idea: “But I disagree… Mr. Slinkhard doesn’t like jinxes, does he? But I think they can be very useful when they’re used defensively.” This shows real engagement with her textbook and an ability to learn from it, while retaining her independent view. For, although the reader may not notice it, Hermione uses Slinkhard’s terminology here (she calls them ‘jinxes,’ as Slinkhard would wish, not ‘counterjinxes’): she accepts his point that the spells are the same; but she simultaneously rejects his underlying argument. Yes, both sides are using equally aggressive spells; no, defence is not morally equivalent to attack.

    Thank you again for such an illuminating post!

  9. David Martin says

    Thank you Beatrice Groves, for your kind remarks and welcome, new comer, to HogPro.
    Your point that Spinner’s End is the first time our view of Snape is not filtered through Harry’s eyes is well taken. Good point. It is also, I believe, the only time we see one of the Hogwarts’ professors “at home” – that is, not living in Hogwarts Castle – except, perhaps, for the brief visit we have with Horace Slughorn in his borrowed, temporary home. I wonder. Do any of the other professors have such homes away from the castle?

    While we’re on the subject of Snape, it has occurred to me that the way the Half-Blood Prince’s textbook has been marked up shows a lot about Snape’s attitude towards books. Snape seems to regard books as tools, to be used – perhaps even used up – and not as the definitive, final word. He is quite willing to challenge and improve on the book’s instructions. This is so similar to the way Hermione challenged Slinkhard’s textbook in Order of the Phoenix that it’s a little surprising that Hermione didn’t immediately recognize the Prince as a kindred spirit.

    You are quite right that Hermione is partially blinded by her schoolgirl crush on Lockhart. Her birthday is September 19, so she turns 13 years old just as the school year is starting. Such a crush would be right on schedule in terms of adolescent development.

    Though all three members of the trio become better readers, it is clearly Hermione who grows the most. We could make an interesting post that just discussed hermione’s growth as a skilled reader, from unquestioning memorizer to thoughtful critic.

    We all know that JKR is an intense planner, with every detail in place. Nevertheless, I think it might actually be unintentional that the good guys use books more than the bad guys in the HP novels. “Book using” may just be part of her general conception of what good people are like – along with kindness and honesty. As I mentioned in my post, in JKR’s interview with Charlie Rose she thanked her mother for raising her in a house full of books. If mother does it, it’s got to be what good people do.

  10. David Martin says


    Thank you for your kind remarks about my post on books. And welcome to HogPro.

    Your point that Spinner’s End is the first time our view of Snape is not filtered through Harry’s eyes is well taken. Good point. It is also, I believe, the only time we see one of the Hogwarts’ professors “at home” – that is, not living in Hogwarts Castle – except, perhaps, for the brief visit we have with Horace Slughorn in his borrowed, temporary home. I wonder. Do any of the other professors have such homes away from the castle?

    While we’re on the subject of Snape, it has occurred to me that the way the Half-Blood Prince’s textbook has been marked up shows a lot about Snape’s attitude towards books. Snape seems to regard books as tools, to be used – perhaps even used up – and not as the definitive, final word. He is quite willing to challenge and improve on the book’s instructions. This is so similar to the way Hermione challenged Slinkhard’s textbook in Order of the Phoenix that it’s a little surprising that Hermione didn’t immediately recognize the Prince as a kindred spirit.

    You are quite right that Hermione is partially blinded by her schoolgirl crush on Lockhart. Her birthday is September 19, so she turns 13 years old just as the school year is starting. Such a crush would be right on schedule in terms of adolescent development.

    While all three members of the trio become more skilled readers as the series progresses, it is clearly Hermione who grows the most. It would be possible to write a post focusing just on Hermione’s growth as a reader, from unquestioning memorizer to thoughtful critic.

    We all know that JKR is an intense planner, wanting every detail in place. Nevertheless, I think it might actually be unintentional that the good guys use books more than the bad guys in the HP novels. “Book using” may just be part of her general conception of what good people are like – along with kindness and honesty. As I mentioned in my post, in JKR’s interview with Charlie Rose she thanked her mother for raising her in a house full of books. If mother does it, it’s got to be what good people do.

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