Order of the Phoenix

I finished the new Harry Potter just before the 4th of July weekend. I was one of those people who pre-ordered from Amazon shortly after the book was announced instead of camping out at the local Barnes & Noble at midnight, and it arrived the morning after. The US Post Office had some sort of big shipping contract with Amazon, with the ridiculously inconvenient “security measure” of requiring me to sign for the book, rather than letting the doorman do it. Luckily, we got back to the building while the postman was still there; it spared me a trip to the Post Office a few days later.

When I finished Book 4 late last year, I really, really wanted the fifth book: why hasn’t Rowling been chained down to her desk to finish the fifth book already?! This frantic desire for Book 5 was partially caused by my little spate of literary bulimia — I plowed through Books 1 through 4 all at once and pretty quickly — and partially because Book 4 ended in a sort of brilliant cliffhanger. Not a strict cliffhanger, with Potter clinging to life by his fingernails as Voldemort brings his wand to bear, but an equally effective feeling that events were rushing forward and about to come to a head, despite there being three books left in the series. It was Luke and Leia looking towards the distant galaxy at the end of The Empire Strikes Back: significant events have happened, and still more significant events will happen in the uncertain future.

Sadly, I don’t have the same feeling right now: there’s no hunger for the next book. The mood of the book is different: it’s about Potter’s emerging adolescence, and all the periodic loneliness and anger that entails. It’s about the flaws and mistakes of the heroes in Potter’s life: the miscalculations with the best of intentions, the thoughtless cruelty of youth. Potter is no longer a child, and, while he (and we) have already seen the dark corners of the world, he (and we) must now see the messiness of the world that has nothing to do with evil. I’m not saying that it’s a bad book — it’s actually an enjoyable read, especially towards the end — it’s just that it’s a different book.

Reading this 860+ page book, carrying it around on the subway in the first week of publication, was a strangely communal experience in the midst of anonymous crowds. You see the blue cover without the dust jacket from across the subway car, and there’s a momentary recognition of shared experience. How far has that person gotten? And at least one stranger asked, how is it so far? I’ve heard of at least one city that tried to do a “book of the month” where the municipal arts council would recommend a book for everyone to read at the same time. I see now that it was perhaps as much an attempt to get more people to read as an attempt to create momentary communities bound by literary ties.

In terms of how this book compares to the others, I still like Prisoner of Azkhaban the best, followed by Goblet of Fire, and perhaps this book tied with the Chamber of Secrets. Oh, Slate’s Book Club has a nice exchange between David Edelstein and Polly Shulman that ranges up to considerations of the political message (anti-EU?) of this recent book.

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