Harry Potter’s Bookshelf: Why Buy It?

With the publication of the paperback Deathly Hallows, the release of the WB Half-Blood Prince film, and the summer’s biggest Harry Potter convention all in the next few days and weeks, we are beginning to see the Harry Haters crawling out of their dark hiding places appearing in the news. My favorite was this piece about the Harry Potter Alliance website, ‘What Would Dumbledore Do?’ (H/T to Perelandra). I was shocked to learn there was a Same Sex Agenda hidden inside the Hogwarts Adventures. I have to dread the inevitable exegesis of Daniel Radcliffe’s sophomoric “coming out” as an atheist. You know how important the faith position of a 20-something actor is for understanding the meaning of the drama in which he plays a thespian’s part…

But there is something positive, edifying, even intellectually challenging and stimulating you can read while you wait for the stock players to come out this month to sing the songs they always sing at public Potter events. You can pick up a copy of my Harry Potter’s Bookshelf: The Great Books Behind the Hogwarts Adventures (Penguin/Berkley, 2009) beginning tonight at midnight if you’re lucky enough to be living near a bookstore having a Midnight Madness party (I think there is a 24/7 B&N superstore in the Florida Keys doing something like that). Why is Bookshelf worth your hard earned cash to purchase and your valuable time to read? Here are three reasons:

(1) Bookshelf is a fun introduction to some of the best writing in English literature that uses the genre melange of the Potter books as a point of entry.

(2) At the same time it opens up English literature via Harry, Bookshelf opens up the Hogwarts Adventures and their meaning using the Greats from Chaucer and Shakespeare through Coleridge and Dickens to Nesbit, Goudge, Sayers, Lewis, and Tolkien (among a host of others). And…

(3) Bookshelf is the short course in “how to read a book as a layered text” or iconologically a la Ruskin and others. It has ten chapters that are organized in four sections corresponding to the traditional four layers of meaning — surface, moral, allegorical, and anagogical or mythic.

It took me the better part of six years to write but, if I say so myself, it’s the best book on the Potter series as literature because it is all about understanding Ms. Rowling’s artistry and accomplishment in the context of the traditions in which she writes. My aim was to illustrate how to read while demonstrating what diamonds can be found via Ruskin’s meditative “deep mining.”

Again blowing my own harm, the book is valuable insomuch as I succeed on these points. I look forward to reading the first rushes on Bookshelf‘s Amazon page in the coming weeks, especially to read what readers make of my thesis that Ms. Rowling is only the most successful in a centuries old stream of subversive writers laboring to undermine our mundane, materialist mindset.

As a foretaste of the book, I’ll close this day-before-publication post with Bookshelf’s Preface. Thank you in advance for ordering online or buying your copy today at a bookstore near you!

Harry Potter’s Bookshelf: The Great Books Behind the Hogwarts Adventures

What This Book Tries to Do and How You Can Get the Most Out of It

This is the fourth book I’ve written on Harry Potter, believe it or not, and, like all the others, my e-mail address is at the end of the introduction with an invitation asking you to write to me with your comments and corrections. The only real compensation for being a Potter Pundit is conversation with serious readers like you about books you love and the ideas you have —and I have been richly compensated with conversation and far-flung friendships. I hope very much that you will write to me to share your thoughts as you read and when you finish reading this book.

The most common request I get in my in-box is for “further reading.” A common ambition of the books I have written is answering the question, “Why are the Harry Potter books so popular?” and my response is always a variation on “It’s the literary artistry that engages and transforms readers that is the real magic of the books.” That answer involves discussing the usual English literature topics like narratological voice and setting, as well as the more bizarre and less well-known devices and story scaffolding that Ms. Rowling uses, like literary alchemy and vision symbolism.

Taking alchemy as an example. The requests I get for “further reading” are for books that use literary alchemy as Ms. Rowling does (Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Perelandra by C. S. Lewis, Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities) and for books about literary alchemy per se (Darke Hieroglyphicks by Stanton Linden, Lyndy Abraham’s A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery). These requests, which I get from serious readers, as well as from teachers, students, and librarians, usually come with one note of delight about understanding and experiencing an unexpected dimension of storytelling and another note of disappointment that their studies hadn’t ever mentioned something that spans English literature from Canterbury Tales to Harry Potter.

I taught a Harry Potter online course from 2003 to 2005 and started writing this book then because of the interest expressed in learning more about Harry Potter as English literature. My hope at that time was to write a fun and inviting text that would simultaneously open up the meaning and magic of Ms. Rowling’s novels while revealing how much of her artistry has its roots in the traditions of great writing. That hope continues to be the heart of what Harry Potter’s Bookshelf tries to do.

Writing Bookshelf has been, to risk a cliché, a labor of love. It has also been more than a little frustrating over the years it has taken to put it together, with stops and starts to work on other projects. The big problems I ran into were selection and organization. I knew, for instance, that the book would have ten chapters from the first time I outlined it. There are ten genres that the author “rowls” together seamlessly from hero’s journey and alchemical drama, to satire and Christian fantasy. But how was I to select what specific authors and works to choose and leave out? Certainly I’d be obliged to include the five or six authors and books Ms. Rowling has mentioned in ten years of interviews as important influences on her work, but what about those subjects she rarely if ever mentioned?

Taking alchemy again for illustration, Ms. Rowling said in 1998 that she read a boatload of books on alchemy before she started writing Harry Potter and that it sets the magical parameters and logic of the books. She hasn’t been asked or said a word about it since so your guess is almost as good as mine about what books she read and which alchemical authors she found helpful and meaningful. Shakespeare? Dickens? Charles Williams? Blake? Yeats? The Metaphysical Poets? That’s quite a range.

And Ms. Rowling has mentioned quite a few authors and books that she loves that I don’t think influenced her writing of the Harry Potter adventure stories as much as others she hasn’t mentioned or downplays when asked. She has said more than once that her “big three” of favorites are “Nabokov, Collette, and Austen,” that her favorite living writer is Rodney Doyle, and that she loved Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes, Paul Gallico’s Manxmouse, Clement Freud’s Grimble, and Roald Dahl’s books. Jane Austen overshadows much of Ms. Rowling’s work certainly (see chapter two), but Lewis and Tolkien, with whom Ms. Rowling has a bizarre love-hate relationship, are obvious influences in a way Nabokov and Collette are not, and Jonathan Swift, whom Ms. Rowling hasn’t mentioned, is a bigger part of Harry than Doyle or Clement Freud, acknowledged or not.

It may strike you as a bit snooty and bizarre not to focus just on the authors Ms. Rowling has mentioned in interviews (Nabakov, Collette, etc.), but Harry Potter’s Bookshelf is not Joanne Rowling’s Library—and the author herself has made it clear that she is skeptical about tracking point-to-point influences from her reading list and history. It isn’t a mechanical one-way process, in which the writer reads a book, enjoys it, and writes a book very much like the first. As she says, it’s a more organic, human thing than that.

Speaking with Writer’s Digest in February 2000, she listed several authors she admired but added quickly, “But as for being influenced by them…I think it [may be] more accurate to say that they represent untouchable ideals to me. It is impossible for me to say what my influences are; I don’t analyze my own writing in that way.”4 In an interview with Amazon in 1999, though, she explained that “It is always hard to tell what your influences are. Everything you’ve seen, experienced, read, or heard gets broken down like compost in your head and then your own ideas grow out of that compost.”

Writers read books, and the best writers, like Ms. Rowling, have read voraciously, profoundly, and widely. These books, as she says, don’t mechanically become models for the writers’ stories. They become the soil out of which the seeds of the author’s talent and ideas can grow. The richer and more fertile the soil, the more the talent and ideas will flourish and blossom. The greater the talent and ideas, the more nutrients will be drawn from the rich soil and the more delicious and refreshing will be the fruits from this tree and vine.

My job in selection, consequently, has meant less sifting through the historical record to find things Ms. Rowling has admitted reading and liking and more exploring the various streams of the English literary tradition in which she lives and writes. That meant, inevitably, making controversial inclusions and omissions; I look forward to reading your thoughts on my biggest blunders and better catches. (Before you write to share your disappointment, yes, I wish I could have included Tennyson, Chesterton, and more Dante and Shakespeare!) The selection argument is one of the more powerful engines of the “Potter as literature” conversation and I’m not offering my choices as anything but a fresh beginning to that discussion.

Organization of the choices I have made, as I mentioned, fell naturally into ten genre and story element divisions based on those Ms. Rowling uses. I decided fairly late in the assembly of the book, though, not to write this up as simply “Here are the choices Ms. Rowling makes for setting (or voice or allegory, etc.) with the most important historical giants that are echoed in her books.” Not only would that be a boring book to write, it wouldn’t challenge readers who want to gain a larger perspective on what literature is and what reading does to them.

I decided consequently, in addition to producing a book that simultaneously opens up both Harry Potter and English literature using one as key to the other, to try to provide a model for thinking about great books and to provoke you with a controversial thesis about the intention of a large part of better literature. I’m confident that most readers will find the model and thesis helpful if only because they will define the field of battle for your spirited disagreement.

There are books available online and at your local bookstore that offer to help you learn How to Read Literature Like a Professor or How Fiction Works and I don’t doubt that there is great value in these guides. I suggest, though, that such introductions do more to take us out of our reading experience for objective knowledge rather than deeper into that experience for our transformation. I wonder, too, if books like this do more than confirm us in the prejudices and blind spots of our age, i.e., how we think already.

The thousands of Harry Potter readers I have met and spoken or corresponded with during the last nine years love the books because of the way the meaning resonates within them. They want to learn more about Ms. Rowling’s artistry not for credits toward a general studies or English degree but to understand and amp up that experience. Postmodern aesthetic surveys or deconstruction exercises throw a wet blanket on the fire driving their transformation. Yeats is supposed to have said that education is lighting a fire not filling a bucket; the model and thesis of Bookshelf are kindling for the fire rather than just more information for your cranial data files.

The model I’ve chosen is what Northrop Frye called the iconological school of literary criticism. In a nutshell, we’ll be looking at Harry Potter as a text like all great art with four layers of meaning: the surface, the moral, the allegorical, and the anagogical or spiritual. Bookshelfs chapters are divided into four sections corresponding to these layers. Voice, drive, and setting, for example, are the subjects of the surface meaning section in the first few chapters and in which I discuss the important influence of Jane Austen, Dorothy Sayers, and Enid Blyton on Ms. Rowling’s surface meanings.

The controversial aspect of iconological layered reading, why it has largely disappeared from the modern academy, for instance, despite being the default model until the twentieth century, is that it assumes writers are writing for the readers edifying transformation rather than for pure, mindless entertainment. That books work to “baptize the imagination”—to overturn our mistaken view of reality is the heart of iconological criticism.

Which brings me to the thesis I offer for your consideration and our continuing conversation. What I found when reading the authors featured in this book was that they were writing on multiple levels, certainly, and that they had a larger purpose in writing than storytelling for storytelling’s sake. I think this diverse group of writers, from Austen to Lewis, from E. Nesbit to Elizabeth Goudge, had more than just purpose: I think they were writing with a shared, subversive purpose that Ms. Rowling has picked up and run with.

In brief, beginning with Swift’s Ancients versus Moderns “Battle of the Books” and defined largely by the natural theology of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Romantic vision, great writers seem to believe that materialism and reductive thinking are dehumanizing, and thus are arguing against and undermining by parable the modern materialist worldview. Austen is dueling David Hume, Gothic writers like Shelley and Stoker the amorality of science, and Goudge and Lewis with their unicorns and lions campaign as Platonic idealists and Christians against the empiricists and Marxists of our age. The better poets, playwrights, and novelists, in brief, of the last few centuries have been waging an under-the-radar war to overturn our mistaken view of reality.

So, how then can you get the most out of this book? First, take a look at the table of contents to see how the four sections correspond with the four layers of meaning in iconological criticism and how I’ve divided up the ten genres and tools Ms. Rowling weaves into the Hogwarts adventures. You can start anywhere you want, of course, though the book was written to be read front to back as the argument builds to the finish in chapter ten.

Next, I hope you’ll take notes while you’re reading of examples you think are better than the ones I chose or which contradict my thesis. I make the case that Ms. Rowling is only the most recent warrior in the centuries-old subversive resistance to Dursley-an “normalcy” and conventional materialism and scientism. I do not believe for a minute that my argument is in any way final or demonstrative. It is meant to be only engaging, perhaps even goading, to stimulate you to think about what reading does to us and what layered meanings writers are sharing with readers who are willing to do the “slow mining” and meditative reflection to get at the subversive, spiritual heart of better books.

That mining and meditation may draw you out of the story occasionally, but we won’t, as Wordsworth says in his poem The Tables Turned, “murder to dissect” or deconstruct. The step back will only be to enter the books again and, as Lewis’s heroes in The Last Battle chant as they enter paradise, to rush “further up and further in.” I’m hopeful that both the iconological model I provide and the thesis I use to provoke your thinking will help you have a more profound and rewarding experience of Harry’s adventures and apotheosis.

I hope, too, as I said, that you’ll write and tell me what you think or just join in the conversation serious readers like you have been enjoying already online at HogwartsProfessor.com. Thank you for purchasing and reading this book, and, in advance, for your correspondence, comments, corrections, and questions to come.


John Granger
john at hogwartsProfessor dot com


  1. revgeorge says

    Well, I found the World Net Daily article to be incoherent and out of touch with reality. The one on Daniel Radcliffe and atheism, I agree with Arabella’s comment on that. Unfortunately there are some people who can’t distinguish fantasy from reality or disassociate actors from their roles. But really Harry Potter the character is in no way an atheist. In fact, his struggle is to believe.

    Now for something that is neither incoherent nor out of touch with reality, Harry Potter’s Bookshelf! While I’m only at the end of the section on Gothic literature, everything up to that point has been stunning & illuminating! I echo heartily Arabella’s comments.

  2. Well, you two have made my day! I’m packing for another transcontinental trip. Tomorrow afternoon I fly to sunny California to give a talk at La Crescenta Presbyterian Church. If you’re in the area, we’ll start at 6:30 on Wednesday night and the church is at 2902 Montrose Ave, La Crescenta, CA 91214-3896 (phone: (818) 249-6137‎, (818) 249-8124‎; http://www.lcpc.net).

    I just finished a post at the Barnes and Noble web site where I was asked to make a contribution to their ‘Literary Blocks’ blog this week to mark the publication of Harry Potter’s Bookshelf. Please leave a comment there if you enjoyed reading one of my favorite Granger family Potter stories, namely, the day my ten year old daughter Sophia taught me how good the Hogwarts Adventures really are.

    See you on Friday!

  3. Arabella Figg says

    Do. Not. Miss. This. Book.

    I was privileged to receive an advance copy of Bookshelf last week and I am almost finished (I’m in the last quarter, the anagogical section). John is at his most entertaining and then some, with laugh-out-loud summations of novels and passages, with many “a-ha!” moments. It’s very accessible, and everyone who loves books should read it; you’ll find it invaluable for understanding even the beachiest reads. (I’ll write more at the Bookshelf page at Amazon.com when I’m done.)

    I couldn’t finish reading the first link above, because its twisted logic gave me that dreadful condition, Freezing Brain Cramp.

    As for Dan Radcliffe–like most young people, he’s exploring beliefs (and with admirable reticence, rather than narcissistic fanfare). His private beliefs are a complete non-issue.

  4. Elizabeth says

    I’m posting my witty and charming review on Amazon in the morning 🙂 , but suffice it to say that Bookshelf is a treat. As always, John makes me think and laugh at the same time, something that few media outlets these days can do. Don’t miss Bookshelf! You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll read some really great books you may have missed (and you may go back and see some old friends). Enjoy!

  5. Steve Morrison says

    It appears Steve Vander Ark likes the book:

  6. As good as her word, Prof. Hardy posted the first review at Amazon this morning! Please go to the book’s Amazon page if it is “helpful” to you and click the button saying so:

    5.0 out of 5 stars
    Forget Madam Pince, go to the Library with John Granger, July 7, 2009
    By Elizabeth Hardy

    In his latest contribution to serious Harry Potter scholarship, John Granger takes on the challenge of analyzing the influence of the “great books” upon the wildly popular series. Rather than a tedious “this looks like that” listing, Granger takes the reader on a delightful journey through the many remarkable literary genres that are woven into Harry’s adventures. Using the four layers of meaning (surface, moral, allegorical, and anagogical/mythical), Granger delves into a lively, readable analysis that never gets bogged down in literary jargon, but always remains insightful and thought-provoking. The influences he covers range from the fairly obvious ( Dickens, and all those sympathetic orphans! Austen, and all those surprise endings!) to the more obscure but equally relevant (Sayers’s detective novels, Gothic stories whose influence actually puts Harry in a role usually given to heroines).

    Summary is used sparingly but effectively. Even “literature geeks” who have read all these books and written papers on them will not find these sections tedious, and they may find handy reminders. Granger frequently unlocks useful insights with his characteristically friendly and accessible “voice.” Readers familiar with Granger will not be surprised to see points on alchemy and on Rowling’s unique twists on post-modernism, but those who have not read Granger’s other works may now be tempted to go further into his work, like the Deathly Hallows Lectures, after getting hints of those topics here.

    The text is well documented with readable apparatus, but an index would be nice. This is a valuable addition for any bookshelf of Potter studies, appealing both for novice readers and serious literature geeks. The text will not only help Potter readers to learn more about Rowling’s world, but may very well be the key to lead them to read and enjoy the contents of the “compost heap” of literature that influenced Rowling; they may even find this book a safe path into the sometimes intimidating world of literary criticism. Don’t worry about the Restricted section; the whole library is a wide-open wonderland with Harry and John Granger.

  7. Arabella Figg says

    I can’t do Amazon, rats, as I’m not a customer, but I’ve just posted my review at Barnes & Noble, which should go up tomorrow.

  8. schmalchemy says

    Have you ever thought about writing a novel? Not a Potter book, but a real-life imaginative tale of some sort? I am sure it would be quite interesting and you’ve got the press to be able to publish it, too.
    What do you think?

  9. I just wanted to add my enthusiastic recommendation of John’s book. I too had a chance to read it a bit early. I think this is one of his best, and that’s saying a lot! He did a tremendous job of distilling many of the important themes and teaching from his earlier books while expanding into new areas. The gothic chapter alone is a gold mine — fascinating and fun! (Teachers are going to love this book!)

    My Amazon review went up yesterday before noon, and yesterday afternoon I also posted a much longer review (still for a general audience) at Epinions, where I’ve been reviewing books for over six years. If anyone wants to take a gander at that, just type Harry Potter’s Bookshelf in the Epinions search engine and it should pop right up. (I review under the id “befus”).

    Already looking forward to a slow re-read of Bookshelf, John, with pen in hand for notetaking!

  10. Arabella Figg says

    I forgot to mention that my B&N review is as DChan. Inked is there, too and at Amazon with the other great reviews. Wow! What a great start, John.

  11. schmalchemy says

    The fourth book you written on Harry Potter?…I thought it was more like six not including the one you edited, “Who Killed Albus Dumbledore?”. I read “The Hidden Key to Harry Potter” which was written prior to HP/OoP. then there was “Looking for God in Harry Potter”, “Unlocking Harry Potter”, “How Harry Cast his Spell”, “Deathly Hallows Lectures” and of course, now your new one, the “Harry Potter Bookshelf”. What am I missing?

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