the take

‘New York’ Book Critic Sam Anderson’s ‘Deathly Hallows’ Reading Diary

Courtesy of Scholastic

Once it became clear that no amount of credentials, real or fabricated, was going to get me an advance copy of Harry Potter and the Noun That Makes No Sense Until Chapter 21 — and after Michiko Kakutani went all Slytherin on us — I decided to take the opposite tack and surrender fully to the magic. At midnight, I stood at the very back of the gigantic horde at my local bookstore (so far in the back that the employees all applauded when I bought my copy) and left at 2 a.m., brandishing the book triumphantly over my head — not an easy lift, since it’s exactly as long as Gravity’s Rainbow and The Brothers Karamazov. It took me two full days of hard reading. In loving memory of my lost weekend (and in lieu of a full review, which will appear in the next print issue), I’ve produced the following hour-by-hour catalogue of my weekend of wizardry.

Warning: There are more spoilers here than there are goblins at Gringott’s, or house-elves in the Hogwarts basement, or adverbs in a J.K. Rowling sentence (he wrote, snarkily).

Saturday, 2:15 a.m. Page 1. The novel is dedicated, like Time magazine’s Person of the Year Issue, to All of Humanity (“You, if you have stuck with Harry until the very end”). I find this cheesy but also mildly touching — which is perfectly appropriate, since that’s been the emotional keynote of the entire series. The scary highbrow epigraphs (one from Aeschylus), as well as my gut, are telling me that Harry is going to die. After glancing through the table of contents, I’m working very hard to resist skipping ahead to Chapter 20 (“Xenophilius Lovegood”). The book opens with a generic evil-warlord crony meeting that’s reminding me a lot of He-Man, right down to the fish-in-a-barrel sexual innuendo:

te>He drew out his own wand and compared the lengths.

“Enough,” said Voldemort, stroking the angry snake.

“And you, Draco?” asked Voldemort, stroking the snake’s snout with his wand-free hand.

That’s all from Chapter 1! And I’m not even counting the name “Pius Thicknesse.” I go to bed at 3 a.m., on page 35.

Saturday, 11 a.m. Page 79. All of Harry’s friends appear in the backyard like a magical A-Team. They concoct a Saddam-style decoy plan to hide him, then fly straight into an ambush. Casualties of the battle include Harry’s tooth, George Weasley’s ear, Mad-Eye Moody, Hedwig the owl (who seems oddly undermourned), and whatever hope I have left that I’m going to enjoy my weekend. Rowling is a genius at imaginative world-building, but she’s mediocre at these oversize plots and climactic epic-battle royales. Watching Harry buy school supplies is 100 times more original and thrilling than watching him battle Voldemort over the fate of the universe.

Saturday, 12:45 p.m. Page 231. Harry and the gang are so deep in Mission Impossible–style reconnaissance (the plan is to break into the Ministry of Magic) that I take a nap.

Saturday, 3:35 p.m. Page 286. The plot has been washed away on a hormonal tsunami of teen angst. Things are getting Blair Witch–ish: endless bickering on a never-ending camping trip. Hermione tells Ron to kindly insert his wand into his anus. They keep saying “effing” and “hell.” Some entertaining idiomatic wizard cursing: “Merlin’s pants!” and “what in the name of Merlin’s most baggy Y Fronts” and “why in the name of Merlin’s saggy left—” (I’m thinking “wizard-teat”).

Saturday, 6:02 p.m. Page 434. I smell terrible and am eating peanut butter directly out of the jar and fighting off another nap. Reading this novel apparently creates the same symptoms as major depression and agoraphobia.

Saturday, 6:50 p.m. Page 460. I’m getting woozy from the overplotting. Rowling has cranked the “coincidence” dial up to eleven and is now flagrantly abusing her “imminent-death-thwarted-at-the-last-possible-moment” privileges. Harry has just been saved from certain doom, 007-style, by his captors’ greedy bickering. Then he’s thrown in a dungeon that also happens to contain most of his long-lost friends. As a reader, my interest in the plot has been reduced to two main questions: (1) Does Snape turn out to be good? and (2) Does Harry live or die? I officially don’t care about the links that get us there. Roughly five hours of reading to go before I can be reunited with my family.

Sunday, 2:06 p.m. Page 475. Suddenly I care again. Dobby dies in a genuinely moving scene: “And then with a little shudder the elf became quite still, and his eyes were nothing more than great glassy orbs, sprinkled with light from the stars they could not see.” Harry buries the house-elf, which seems to jolt him out of his post-adolescent funk and into manhood. I’m suddenly optimistic about the last 300 pages.

Sunday, 3:15 p.m. Page 586. Harry emerges, finally, into the halls of Hogwarts. For me, a reliable index of how good a Harry Potter book will be is how long it takes him to get to Hogwarts — the sooner, the better. Here it’s almost 600 pages.

Sunday, 3:40 p.m. Page 610. Voldemort delivers a menacing speech using high-school valedictorian rhetoric: “Give me Harry Potter, and none shall be harmed. Give me Harry Potter, and I shall leave the school untouched. Give me Harry Potter, and you will be rewarded.”

Sunday, 4:22 p.m. Page 625. Two inexcusable things happen very quickly. First, Ron skips back with an armful of basilisk fangs from the Chamber of Secrets, which he says he got into by faking Parseltongue. You know, Parseltongue: the horrifying snake-language hitherto spoken exclusively by Harry and Voldemort and serpents — a talent so rare that Harry was ostracized when people found out about it. Ron says he just imitated the noises he heard Harry make. Now, excuse my righteous Potter-dork anger here, but this is absurd — if this were possible, dark wizards and mischievous Hogwarts students would have been faking it for centuries, raising all kinds of snake-related hell. It’s a totally B.S. plot shortcut that needs to go on Rowling’s permanent record.

Also, at a crucially tense moment, when there’s absolutely no time to lose, Ron and Hermione decide to make out over the cause of house-elf liberation. This book is getting silly. My scar is throbbing.

Sunday, 4:58 p.m. Page 649. Remember in Lord of the Rings, where good and evil hordes are battling over the castle, and it looks like the good guys are losing, but then all of a sudden they’re winning, but then they’re losing, but then they’re winning again? Well, this is exactly like that, except with Harry Potter. And then remember in Star Wars, when everyone is shooting red and green bursts of light at each other, and you can’t exactly tell what’s going on? It’s like that too, except with Harry Potter. There’s something beautiful about the absurd overmuchness of Rowling’s narrative imagination — she just wants to cram in every single significant archetype in the history of storytelling. It’s awesome to behold.

Sunday, 6:03 p.m. Page 704. It’s true: The late Snape was just a misunderstood good guy. And I was right: Harry has to die so that the world might live. This whole sequence is actually deeply moving, and pretty much worth all the prior slogging — Harry accepts his death, relishes his last moments of life, and, surrounded by the ghosts of his dead family and friends, marches off to his death. When he asks his mother to stay close to him, I almost shed an actual tear. (Probably because it makes me think of my family, to whom I’ve been dead for a couple of days now.) Suddenly this is a legitimate tragedy. I’m impressed.

Sunday, 6:38 p.m. Page 738. And here’s the cop-out. Harry Potter is actually Jesus Christ. It turns out that, because of the purity of his sacrifice, he doesn’t actually have to die — he gets to go back and kill Voldemort. And just as a bonus, his sacrifice has redeemed humanity. As he tells Voldemort: “You won’t be able to kill any of them ever again. Don’t you get it? I was ready to die to stop you from hurting these people … I’ve done what my mother did. They’re protected from you.” Some would argue that the Bible is shorter and better.

Sunday, 6:55 p.m. Page 744. Harry and Voldemort circle each other like the knife fighters in “Beat It.” Then Harry’s wand-gush overpowers the Dark Lord’s wand-gush: “Voldemort was dead, killed by his own rebounding curse, and Harry stood with two wands in his hand, staring down at his dead enemy’s shell.”

Sunday, 7:15 p.m. Page 759. After its brief flirtation with tragedy, the book ends with a disappointing (to me) epilogue full of har-har family-sitcom humor, in which the 36-year-old Harry and the gang, all blissfully intermarried, drop off the next generation of wizards at Platform 9 3/4. It ends with a really bland and terrible last sentence.

I close the book, forever, on Sunday evening at 7:22. —Sam Anderson

‘New York’ Book Critic Sam Anderson’s ‘Deathly Hallows’ Reading Diary