Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (1998)
Impression published on Tuesday, 2012-08-07 | Novel | 3 stars
At some point during one of the two sittings in which I read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, I developed this gnawing suspicion that someone had futzed with the Anglicisms.
Turns out I was right: when Scholastic published the book in 1998 (a year after its original publication in the UK), some bloodless jerk-off in a corner office decided that, in order to be more palatable to American kids, "chips" ought to be called "fries", "crisps" ought to be called "chips" and, most importantly, the phrase "Philosopher's Stone" had to be swapped out for something less likely to repulse YA readers.
Bracketing the argument about whether or not any of us can think of anything more idiotic--or directly contraindicated by the popularity of occult themes in YA publications over the last...well, forever, actually--than the notion that borrowing noun phrases from medititationes sacrae or occulta naturae miracula or whatever might somehow result in fewer sales, the extremely unfortunate decision taken by the publishers to force the author to come up with an alternate title is, in fact, the main reason that I did not pick up the series until 2012.
See, having spent way, way too much time with myth and the occult as a child (and then as an adolescent, then as a young man and then in recent times as a grad student), my natural habit is to respond to what I perceive to be half-baked, re-jiggered or otherwise fudged appropriations of mythology and the occult the way that all nerds must respond to work whose authors they perceive to be poachers on our various private preserves: with a thorough brow-beating for anyone foolish enough to pass such Johnny-come-lately bullshit across my desk and total indifference to the work itself.
And so, for better or for worse, the very poor title "Sorcerer's Stone" left me with that all-important first impression that the series had to be Johnny-come-lately bullshit: anyone who has spent five minutes seriously pursuing alchemy can smell that half-assery of a title like that in the context of a fantasy novel a mile off.
Having just finished the first book, however, I am now willing to concede that I made a mistake.
No monster or creature in the first Harry Potter comes off as a panicky dumpster-dive into cryptozoology intended to keep an otherwise motiveless hero on his feet; no scrap of doggerel Latin felt lamely superimposed for the sake of "authenticity"; no recasting of a popular myth felt like a vain or gratuitous elevation of author's own poisonous stupidity and/or tedious moralizing (I'm looking at you, Stephenie Meyer).
Rather, in this book is a simply written and sincerely crafted story possessed of remarkable emotional ballast. It even gets off a few honest laughs.
The magical and occult themes that I was convinced had been appropriated in bad faith are very tastefully presented, and usually with a bit of a wink and a nod: for a YA reader, the arcane, cryptozoological and occult material will seem convincing and full of depth, to someone a bit older with a bit more book-learnin' under his belt, they come off as cleverly and moderately done (even if they are occasionally a bit cloying).
I liked this book and I plan to read more in the series.