Here's the thing: P. (aet. 8) is deeply immersed in the books at the moment, most of the way thru #4, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (or, as I like to call it, HP and the Cauldron of Shit). So I thought the least I could do was to gamely keep up with her, or at least try to stay a few chapters ahead. Problem is, when an 8-year-old is obsessing over a book – or at least our 8-year-old – it's hard to get it away from her to read it yourself. So I powered thru Goblet & into the next, mammoth volume, HP and the Order of the Phoenix (which I'm irritating J. by referring to by a title that makes into a piece of bookish pornography). Just finished this 800-pager earlier today, to the detriment of things that really needed to get read.
Me: This book is 800 pages long. I could be reading Middlemarch.Why re-reading, you ask? Well, as I've perhaps mentioned once or twice, I have no memory for narrative or character. I remember if I liked a novel or disliked it, if I found it riveting or revolting, I remember a striking character or a vivid scene or a particularly nice piece of writing; but there're very few novels I've read, even ones I've read repeatedly & even taught, whose plot I could accurately summarize. So I knew that if P. asked me even the most simple Hogwartish question about the HP books, I'd need to have them more or less fresh in my mind if I didn't want to destroy her entirely healthy sense of paternal omniscience.
J: Middlemarch is harder; you have to pay attention to the words.
For the most part, I find the novels pretty benign stuff. Not particularly well-written, by any means, but not awfully ham-fisted. The allegories are pretty thin, and I dislike the Perry Mason-ish wrapping up that seems to end every volume. Phoenix is of course grotesquely overlong. My memories of the last two books, HP and the Half-Pence and HP and the Healthy Fellows (or something like that), are dim, but I remember them seeming even longer than Phoenix, alas. I think the good guys win in the end.
The scenes in HP & the Order etc. where the batrachian Dolores Umbridge (slimy representative of the Ministry of Magic) takes over the Defence Against the Dark Arts class, banning actual spell practice & forcing the students merely to read their textbooks (theory rather than practice – I'm sure there's an anti-Adorno message buried there) reminded me of a moment in my own educational experience – my ninth grade history class, where some poor schmuck of a teacher (he'd taught driver's ed for 30 years, & suddenly found himself forced to teach American history because of budget cuts) had us sitting in class and reading the textbook aloud.
Of course, Dolores Umbridge is Rowling's jab at educational theorists who prescribe syllabi & courses of study from an ivory tower. But I've never been particularly happy reading Rowling's account of the educational experience of Hogwarts: the kids sit around in class praticing stuff the professor have just shown them (doing spells, mixing potions); for homework, they have to go back to the dorms & write essays (measured by inches of parchment) which look for all the world like regurgitations from their textbooks. The only exception (leaving aside Hagrid's Care of Magical Animals course and Sprout's Herbology) is Binns's History of Magic, which consists of interminable, boring lectures.
So, I keep thinking to myself, is this really the way they do it at Eton? The essay homework, especially, seems to replicate some of the least useful parts of my own education, while I seem to recall having Cuthbert Binns in a social studies class in 7th grade. Why aren't I more convinced by the picture Rowling gives us of the education of a young wizard? Why don't I want to teach at Hogwarts?
The answer came to me the other evening: Howgarts isn't really an old-fashioned "public school" at all, for all its house colors, prefects, & top girls & boys – it's a vocational school. It's not Stalky & Company with potions or Tom Brown's School Days with hexes, but a beauty school or car repair academy with wands and brooms. In the end, Sprout's greenhouses and Hagrid's paddocks are the most true-to-life portions of the Hogwarts panorama, places where the students are getting hands-on experience at things they'll need to know as mature witches and wizards. The other classes, where everybody sits at the desks, facing front (or passing magical notes), is conventional classroom with an overlay of exotic subject matter.
A real live school of Witchcraft & Wizardry, one suspects, would be far more like a martial arts dojo – lots of practice rooms with padded floors & walls, lots of open spaces, lockers, showers, & cubbies. Ah, but then Rowling would have had to reinvent The Karate Kid with wands, & one suspects that wouldn't have quite the cachet of a magical Tom Brown – or at least she probably wouldn't be able to recycle so many school-story stereotypes (kindly headmaster, cranky caretaker, grouchy librarian, etc).