Reviewed by Ted Gioia

One might think it unnecessary to make a case for this book.  
After all, it did more for the cause of reading than any novel of
the last century.  It gave an enormous boost to the purveyors
of books far and wide, launching a series that has sold more
than 400 million copies to date.  It has inspired other writers
to publish more than 300,000 (no, I
am not kidding) Harry Potter-inspired
stories of their own in various on-line
forums. It has enchanted readers,
young and old, and will certainly
continue to do so for many
generations to come.

In short, if you had to place a wager
on the one book published in your
lifetime that will still be widely read
a century from now, this is where
all the smart money would go.  It’s
a
no brainer. Today’s children will
read it to their own children and
grandchildren, who in turn . . .
Well, you get the idea.

Yet when I suggested in an
article
that J.K. Rowling might be as deserving
of a prestigious literary award as, say, Doris Lessing, I was
subjected to some serious eyebrow-raising.  Of course, we will
see if Lessing’s work in speculative fiction,
Canopus in Argos:
Archives
, is still in print in a hundred years.  The fact that it is
out of print now, only a little more than year after Lessing was
honored with the Nobel, is not an encouraging sign.  No smart
money on that horse, my friends.

Now
Harold Bloom will tell you that "Rowling's mind is so governed
by clichés and dead metaphors that she has no other style
of writing."  
A.S. Byatt has suggested that the Harry Potter books
were written for “people whose imaginative lives are confined to
TV cartoons."  Given J.K. Rowling’s apparent ineptitude, one
wonders why these books have become so much more cherish-
ed than, say,
The Flintstones or those manga paperbacks
remaindered in stacks down at Barnes & Noble.  Could it be
that J.K. Rowling knows something that Professor Bloom
doesn't?  Hmm, can I wager on that one too?

Anyone who has spent some time with the Harry Potter books
will quickly discover why these works are so appealing.  I have
written
elsewhere that the most successful works of speculative
fiction are similar to what anthropologist Clifford Geertz described
in his influential 1973 work
The Interpretation of Cultures as
“thick description” ethnography.  While the “thin description”
focuses solely on one aspect of a culture, the “thick description”
aims more ambitiously to convey the context as well.

In conventional realistic novels, this context is often fairly
straightforward.  It is the external world, and all its trappings.  
The author does not need to specify it in all its richness, since
this contextual knowledge is brought by the reader to the act of
reading.  But for writers of conceptual fiction, who tinker with our
sense of reality and exercise the license of fantasy, the context
is of paramount importance.  The majesty of an endeavor on
the scale of Rowling’s project—as with similar imaginative
constructions of Narnia, Middle-earth, Dune, etc.—is the
suchness of this context, and its capability to astonish and
delight us.  This is more than the invention of a story; it is
nothing less than the construction of a universe.

How difficult is it for a writer to do this?  Building a vivid and
enchanting fantasy world from scratch, a Hogwarts or a
Middle-earth, is a massive undertaking, much more challenging,
I would argue, than writing crisp dialogue or creating an
engaging character.  Readers understand this, even if
Yale
academics miss the point. This is why any list of the most
popular novels of the last century is dominated by precisely
these “thick description” works of imaginative fiction.

But don’t jump to the conclusion that Rowling is weak on
character development, pacing or the other more traditional
components of the novelist’s craft.  She has peopled her
magical universe with some of the most striking characters of
contemporary fiction.  And I’m not just talking about Harry Potter
and his two chums, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley.  The
secondary characters are also remarkably well constructed.  
Even in these long tomes, Rowling can hardly find enough time
on center stage for all her memorable role players.  While
reading these books, I always find myself wanting more of
Snape and Malfoy, two of the most perfectly realized villains I
have encountered. Hagrid is compelling, as is Dumbledore, and
a dozen or more of the lower profile cast members.  Even a
ghost like Peeves has more personality and makes a bigger
presence on the page than those characters in other books
who have the benefit of a fully functional non-transparent body.

These are not "realistic" characters in the conventional sense.
They are compelling figures, nonetheless.  Recall that the
characters one finds in Dickens and Proust—to cite two revered
predecessors—are hardly more realistic.  Rowling, like Dickens,
creates artfully conceived "types" who are larger than life.  They
are decidedly not like your neighbors next door, nor would you
want them to be.  By exaggerating certain qualities and hiding
others, Rowling enhances the drama and vibrancy of her
narratives.

In series books, the most imaginative energy is typically evident
in the first volume.  This is where the new universe comes to life
(or fails to do so, as the case may be).  If everything clicks in
book one, half of the work for the sequels is already finished.
This is true for Rowling as it was for
Frank Herbert or C.S. Lewis
or J. R. R. Tolkien.  Once she had created Hogwarts and its
denizens, the magical universe that surrounds it, and above all
the charismatic Mr. Harry Potter & company, J.K. Rowling could
have given us countless stories with these same chess pieces.  
For this reason, I give special marks to
Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer’s Stone
(or Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
in its original British title), the work that set this whole enterprise
in motion.

Rowling has blessed us with seven Harry Potter novels
(although her fans have added, as noted above, several
hundred thousand other related tales), and there is no better
place to start in exploring her richly inspired alternative world
than this opening volume in the series. If
Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer’s Stone
is not a classic, than the term hardly has a
legitimate meaning. This is one of those books that is meant to
be enjoyed and shared.  I read this book aloud to my son when
he was five years old, and I daresay that I was as enchanted as
he was by Rowling’s story. We went on to read the rest of the
series together.  I suspect he will have the same joy sharing
these books with his own children.  In the often isolating and
esoteric world of the modern novel, this sense of sharing and
community is in itself remarkable.  But no less remarkable—and
canonical—than what J.K. Rowling has conjured out of her head.
The Year
of
Magical
Reading
(click here)
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
THE YEAR OF MAGICAL READING
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
by J.K. Rowling
Welcome to my year of magical
reading.  Each week during the
course of 2012,  I will explore an
important work of fiction that
incorporates elements of magic,
fantasy or the surreal.  My choices
will cross conventional boundary
lines of genre, style and historical
period—indeed, one of my intentions
in this project is to show how the
conventional labels applied to these
works have become constraining,
deadening and misleading.

In its earliest days, storytelling almost
always partook of the magical. Only
in recent years have we segregated
works arising from this venerable
tradition into publishing industry
categories such as "magical realism"
or "paranormal" or "fantasy" or some
other 'genre' pigeonhole. These
labels are not without their value, but
too often they have blinded us to the
rich and multidimensional heritage
beyond category that these works
share.  

This larger heritage is mimicked in
our individual lives: most of us first
experienced the joys of narrative
fiction through stories of myth and
magic, the fanciful and
phantasmagorical; but only a very
few retain into adulthood this sense
of the kind of enchantment possible
only through storytelling.  As such,
revisiting this stream of fiction from a
mature, literate perspective both
broadens our horizons and allows us
to recapture some of that magic in
our imaginative lives.

The Year of Magical Reading:

Week 1:
Midnight's Children by
Salman Rushdie

Week 2:  The House of the Spirits by
Isabel Allende

Week 3:  The Witches of Eastwick
by
John Updike

Week 4:  Magic for Beginners by
Kelly Link

Week 5:  The Tin Drum by Günter
Grass

Week 6:  The Golden Ass by
Apuleius

Week 7:  The Tiger's Wife by Téa
Obreht

Week 8:  One Hundred Years of
Solitude  by Gabriel García Márquez

Week 9:  The Book of Laughter and
Forgetting by Milan Kundera

Week 10: Gargantua and Pantagruel
by
François Rabelais

Week 11: The Famished Road by
Ben Okri

Week 12: Like Water for Chocolate
by
Laura Esquivel

Week 13: Winter's Tale by Mark
Helprin

Week 14: Dhalgren by Samuel R.
Delany

Week 15:  Johnathan Strange & Mr.
Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Week 16:  The Master and
Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Week 17:  Dangerous Laughter by
Steven Millhauser

Week 18:  Conjure Wife by Fritz
Leiber

Week 19:  1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Week 20:  The Hobbit by J.R.R.
Tolkien

Week 21:  Aura by Carlos Fuentes

Week 22:  Dr. Faustus by Thomas
Mann

Week 23:  Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Week 24:  Little, Big by John Crowley

Week 25:  The White Hotel by D.M.
Thomas

Week 26:  Neverwhere by Neil
Gaiman

Week 27:  Alice's Adventures in
Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Week 28:  Fifth Business by
Robertson Davies

Week 29:  The Kingdom of This
World by Alejo Carpentier

Week 30:  The Bear Comes Home
by R
afi Zabor

Week 31:  The Color of Magic by
Terry Pratchett

Week 32:  Ficciones by Jorge Luis
Borges

Week 33:  Beloved by Toni Morrison

Week 34:  Dona Flor and Her Two
Husbands by Jorge Amado

Week 35:  Hard-Boiled Wonderland
and the End of the World by Haruki
Murakami

Week 36:  What Dreams May Come
by Richard Matheson

Week 37:  Practical Magic by Alice
Hoffman

Week 38:  Blindess by José
Saramago

Week 39:  The Fortress of Solitude
by J
onathan Lethem

Week 40:  The Magicians by Lev
Grossman

Week 41:  Suddenly, A Knock at the
Door by Etgar Keret

Week 42:  Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

Week 43:  The Obscene Bird of
NIght by José Donoso

Week 44:  The Fifty Year Sword by
Mark Z. Danielewski

Week 45:  Gulliver's Travels by
Jonathan Swift

Week 46:  Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

Week 47:  The End of the Affair by
Graham Greene

Week 48:  The Chronicles of Narnia
by C
.S. Lewis

Week 49:  Hieroglyphic Tales by
Horace Walpole

Week 50:  The View from the
Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockmeier

Week 51:  Gods Without Men by
Hari Kunzru

Week 52:  At Swim-Two-Birds by
Flann O'Brien
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
www.twitter.com/tedgioia

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José
Blindness

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert
Mindswap

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light



Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzle of Robert Sheckley


Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter


SF Site
io9
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction


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