I mentioned this to a former student, and she was shocked. 'How can you teach English and not have read the one book most of your students have read?' she asked. It's a good point, and I admitted as much.
A few days later, I got an envelope in the post with her collection of the audiobooks on cds read by Stephen Fry. So I listened to Philosopher's Stone.
First, I'm not a huge user of audiobooks, but Fry is amazing. If you haven't heard this, I recommend it wholeheartedly. It's not so much a reading as a performance. Astounding.
The story itself is very well crafted and really, really fun. I didn't love the way the end was set up -- it seemed a bit ponderous, with the challenges matching the characters, but fair enough. The characters are excellent and the action just rolls along, building suspense and using the plot devices effectively. The style of the writing veers into cliche too often for my taste, although the action is well written. I could easily imagine the Quidditch matches, for instance. It reminds me very much of the Narnia books and Roald Dahl stories in its tone and style.
What struck me was how obsessively English it is, and how Rowling presents Hogwarts and the wizard world generally as a romanticized premodern England. The feasts, for instance, made me laugh out loud. While this smacks of a certain conservatism, the wizard world is anarchic and anti-logical, especially compared to the ultra-rational world of The Dursleys. Rowling seems to be rejecting the rationalism of the Enlightenment, taken to its extreme in Victorian England, for a more imaginative and honor-based world. In that way, it fits into a fine tradition, going back to Hamlet.
I can see why this is so popular: like the Star Wars franchise, Rowling gives us a classic hero's journey in a fresh setting, with fun jokes and relatable characters. I enjoyed it myself, and I will be listening to the other novels as I go along, and I might watch the films as well.