More ‘Harry Potter’s Bookshelf’ Reviews

It has been three weeks now since Penguin/Berkley published Harry Potter’s Bookshelf: The Great Books Behind the Hogwarts Adventures and the reviews have been wonderfully kind and generous. Here are three of the most interesting, from HogPro All Pro Dr. Amy H. Sturgis, from a librarian/teacher named ‘Befus’ at epinions, and from Steve Vander Ark, the Lexicon Guy:

Steve Vander Ark, my roommate at Azkatraz 2009, wrote a ‘compare and contrast’ review at the Harry Potter Lexicon, in which Bookshelf was put up against the MuggleNet tsunami Harry Potter Should Have Died:

I just finished two interesting Harry Potter books (and I’m starting on a third).

One is “Harry Potter Should Have Died” from our friends at MuggleNet. I wouldn’t call this a book of “literary analysis” — it’s too lightweight for that. But that’s not a criticism: I very much enjoyed reading this lively recap of some of the enduring mysteries of the series, such as whether Snape is ultimately good or evil, and it was fun reminding myself of the various fan ideas and opinions that have been debated endlessly for many years. Some sections were hampered by the fact that some of the reasonable options were never even considered (for example, choosing the “worst” book from only two choices instead of analysing all seven). Some entries included canon misinformation or incorrect assumptions, and some were just downright silly. But overall, the book makes for a fun read while sitting in the sun with an iced tea when you don’t feel like thinking too much and just want to splash around a little bit in Harry Potter lore.

If, on the other hand, you’re interested in diving in head-first, swimming to the deepest part of the pool, and seeing how long you can hold your breath, then Harry Potter’s Bookshelf is for you. Where the MuggleNet book makes a point of not taking itself too seriously, Harry Potter’s Bookshelf is very serious about its seriousness. This is literary analysis to the point of being a bit stuffy at times.

However, this is the kind of brilliant, well-grounded stuffiness which I’ve always enjoyed; reading through (and at times wrestling with) a text of this kind leaves me feeling enlightened about Harry Potter books in a way nothing else does. John Granger is a wonderful guide on any such exploration of classic themes and connections, managing to make even the most dense analysis interesting and understandable. His penchant for lame word-play makes me groan sometimes and he, like the MuggleNet gang, makes the occasional canon misstep, but none of this in any way detracts from the book.

So which of these books would I take with me to the beach (if I went to the beach, which I don’t because, you know, I’m a nerd)? Frankly, I’d take both and shift between them. A bit of delightful fannishness, a bit of serious litarary-ness, with long sips of iced tea in between. [End review.]

Dr. Amy H. Sturgis checked in with these kind words:

5.0 out of 5 stars
Explore the Classic Books behind Harry’s Adventures Dr. Amy H. Sturgis

John Granger has written a fantastic and fascinating exploration into the great books behind J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Not only does this book represent a “must have” for Harry Potter fans and an invaluable gift for those who use Harry Potter in the classroom, but it also offers a compelling defense of the Harry Potter series as literature that is grounded in and built upon some of the finest works in the canon.

Among the thought-provoking and insightful chapters are investigations of Harry Potter as a Dickensian orphan and a hero in a Sayers mystery; how Jane Austen haunts the heart and soul of Rowling’s artistry; Harry Potter as a boarding school story in the tradition of Tom Brown’s Schooldays; and Harry Potter as both a Gothic romance and a postmodern epic. Granger examines Harry Potter as satire, allegory, myth, alchemical metaphor, and subversive fantasy. In the process, he offers a whirlwind tour of Western literature in an accessible and entertaining manner. This book leaves the reader anxious to revisit the great books – or discover them for the first time – while appreciating all the more the craft and thought behind the Harry Potter series. Highly recommended! [End review.]

Over at Epinions, Befus wrote:

It’s been almost two years since J.K. Rowling brought her seven-book Harry Potter series to an end. Despite that, people still love to talk about Harry. It’s not just that a new generation is getting to know the books, or that the films inspired by the books are still being made (with the fifth installment due out in a few weeks) or that readers who loved the books the first time through have begun to go back and read them. We’re also beginning to see deeper conversation regarding Harry Potter’s place in literature.

Were the Harry Potter books a flash in the pan, part of a publishing phenomenon we’ve rarely seen the likes of before and may not see again? Will the stories outlast this generation or two? Do they transcend the category of children’s literature? What is it about these stories that makes them so pleasurable and cathartic that many readers return to them again and again?

John Granger, one of the foremost Harry Potter literary critics, has done more than almost anyone else to assess those kinds of questions in his books. Long before the series was finished, Granger was exploring the popularity and power of the stories by getting at the roots and scaffolding behind Rowling’s artistry. In his earlier books Looking for God in Harry Potter (since revised as How Harry Cast His Spell) and Unlocking Harry Potter, Granger delved into literary elements in Rowling’s fiction. He has done groundbreaking work on the alchemical literary elements in Harry Potter and provided fascinating reflections on Rowling as a postmodern writing in the tradition of Christian symbolists like C.S. Lewis.

In his new book, Harry Potter’s Bookshelf, John Granger revisits many of his old themes but delves even deeper into the “mental compost pile” (to use Rowling’s own image) that went into the writing of the Harry Potter stories. As the subtitle says, this is a look at “The Great Books Behind the Hogwarts Adventures.”

Ten Genres Brilliantly “Rowled” Together

Parents, teachers, and Harry Potter enthusiasts of all sorts should rejoice, for this is a creative exploration of ten literary genres, each with representative books and authors, that deeply influenced Rowling’s artistry. The ten chapters of Harry Potter’s Bookshelf explore how Rowling creatively used — in some cases creatively but traditionally and in other cases subversively – literary elements and themes from these many genres.

Thus you’ll find discussions of the orphan story (a la Charles Dickens) and how Rowling fueled her narrative drive through the use of elements in traditional orphan stories. But you’ll also discover that some of the excitement of that narrative drive (i.e. what keeps readers turning pages) comes from Rowling’s creative exploration of detective story elements, and you’ll look at her hat tips to character-driven mystery stories penned by the great Dorothy Sayers.

Granger also discusses how Austen’s influence permeates the Harry Potter stories, particularly through Rowling’s use of the third-person limited omniscient perspective and the ways in which she deals with mistaken impressions/false appearances and surprise endings. Other influential genres include the schoolboy novel, the gothic novel, postmodern fiction, literary satire (Swift), medieval allegory (Chaucer), the hero’s journey, alchemical literature (Shakespeare and Dickens) and fantasy writing in the English tradition (Lewis, Goudge, Nesbit, and Tolkien). I’ve included only a sampling of some of the authors mentioned as representatives of their genre, just to give you an idea of the richness of this book.

Granger does not argue that Rowling has definitively cited each and every one of these authors, books (or even genres) as direct influences. Although in some cases she has listed some of the authors as favorites, and even gone on record talking about the complexity of literary influences, this book is not an attempt to do a simple “connect the dots” between writers of old and Rowling, though it’s clear that they all belong on the same family tree. In fact, one of the more interesting elements of Bookshelf is the way in which Granger delves into the text itself to find these influences. When he begins to unpack the gothic elements in Harry Potter, for instance (in what I believe is one of the most fascinating and valuable chapters of all) you will likely have head-slapping moments of recognition as you begin to see how the Harry Potter stories both fit into and creatively play with elements of that tradition.

Granger’s prose is, as always, highly accessible even for folks who have not done much thinking about literature since English 101. His trademark humor and straightforward style helps him to explain literary concepts in ways that lay people, not just academicians, can understand and relate to. As he teaches he gets at the heart, not just of the Harry Potter stories, but of stories in general. What makes a good book good and worth reading (or re-reading)? Why is it that some books reward us with treasures as we read them slowly and with attention?

Four Layers of Meaning

This last question is perhaps the most interesting, and it shapes not just the content but the organization of HP’s Bookshelf. Following the school of “iconological criticism,” Granger argues that great art has “four layers of meaning: the surface, the moral, the allegorical, and the anagogical or spiritual.” (p. xv) He then divides his discussion of Rowling’s literary influences into four corresponding sections.

For instance, the chapters in which he talks about what she’s doing with literary voice, narrative drive, and settings all rightly belong to the story’s “surface” meaning. He proceeds through the middle two layers, presenting such fascinating topics as Snape’s literary connections to Heathcliff, Harry’s kinship with gothic heroines, and Rowling’s satirical approach to government and media, until he reaches the last layer. At the last layer of meaning you appropriately find the deepest reflections when he presents insights into Rowling’s alchemical symbolism and other images important to the romantic fantasy tradition, such as the “seeing eye” symbolism Granger unpacks at greater length in his book The Deathly Hallows Lectures.

If you continue to find yourself fascinated by Harry, then Harry Potter’s Bookshelf may be just the book for you. If you’re new to John Granger’s work, it provides an excellent distillation of some of his earlier themes while moving more deeply into others. Whether or not you agree with Granger’s assessments (and he cordially invites you to disagree and to add your own insights to the discussion he starts within these pages) it’s still a terrific stepping stone introduction to some wonderful books and authors in the English literary canon. I have a feeling that many English teachers, at the high school and college level, may discover the usefulness and creativity of this book as they teach the importance of careful reading and creative writing. Given the familiarity most students in this generation have with Harry Potter, this book should help open to door to some great teaching moments.

Reading this book is a delight for anyone who loves Harry Potter and anyone who loves thinking about what makes good literature good. If (like me) you happen to fall into both categories, you’ll feel like you’ve caught the golden snitch. [End review.]

Thank you, Steve, Dr. Amy, and Befus! For other reviews, please go to Barnes &’s Bookshelf page or check out the full Amazon review list. So far the reviews have all been positive. Is that compelling evidence that the book is worthy of your purchase and reading? As compelling as such things go, yes. [End shamelessly mercantile self-promotion.]


  1. revgeorge says

    I’m almost but not quite ready to write my review! 🙂

  2. Thanks, John, for posting these. It’s wonderful to read so many different reviews of your excellent book!

    And just to let regular posters here know, I’m the librarian/teacher “Befus” who posts at Epinions. 🙂

  3. John, just FYI. A week or so ago I was in my local Barnes and Noble and saw “Harry Potter’s Bookshelf” on the table of new arrivals. I looked again when I was in there on Monday to escape the heat and couldn’t find any copies in the store. Now, they might not all be sold as they do tend to move books around and it’s sometimes hard to figure out which classification they’ve used to file your books, but . . .

    I’ll look again when I’m there this afternoon after my stint volunteering at the Food Bank.

  4. schmalchemy says

    Okay, not a review, but a question as I have yet to read your book. Last night I saw a musical production of “The Secret Garden” based on the novel of the same name. I read it as a child (about 10 or 12 years old) so don’t recall the particulars all that well; however, in the play, one of the songs (and the dialogue of the play confirmed it too) was about the mother of Colin. Her name was Lily and about her eyes. Mary, the orphaned niece, is compared to her and the fact that she has Lily’s eyes. What struck me was the coincidence in the name (Lily) and the eye comparison. Is this one of books you compare in your newest Harry Potter punditry? (I think I just invented a word, or screwed around it at least). Just curious…

  5. I discuss the eyes of Colin, son of Lilias, in Hodgson-Burnett’s ‘Secret Garden’ in Chapter 7 of Bookshelf. There is also a longish post somewhere in the HogPro archives; just search for Secret Garden.

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