I don't like Harry Potter. Actually, my problem isn't with Harry Potter himself, who's doing the best he can given the world he lives in and the plots he lives with, but with J.K. Rowling. Don't get me wrong: the books are fun reads (though I would have plotted them very differently, even given these general outlines) and the magical elements of the milieu are quite entertaining; I'm a great fan of wordplay and satire, which are the best elements of Rowling's writing. My wife is a big fan, as is her whole side of the family, my brother's family, etc. I grew up with Tolkien and Asimov and Pratchett and all that. I've got a request in at the public library for a copy of the new book, and when my number comes up, I'll read it. Someday, when the series is complete, I'll buy a boxed set, probably to share with my son.
But I'm an historian, and a social historian at that, and I can't fathom how Rowling's world came to be, or how it functions. That drives me nuts. The students are always doing history papers, most of which are amusingly dreadful antiquarianism, but there's no discussion to speak of of anything that happened more than two generations ago. Worse, there's no sense of evolution, no sense of change. And that is wrong. Terribly wrong given the immense changes that have come to the mundane world in the last few centuries: even allowing for a magical-mundane relationship that was pretty stable through antiquity (and since most magic seems to be Latinate, I have to assume that there's something important about the Axial Age) to the early modern, there's no way that magic users wouldn't be struggling with technological and social developments of the last century or so.
Take, for example, the economy: it's a hard currency economy, apparently inconvertible with mundane monies. Fine. But where do wizards get their vegetables? Is there an entire parallel economy of magical merchants? And if so, why, and was this always the case? Is there something superior about fruits raised by magic instead of chemical fertilizers and protected by spells instead of insecticides (and would that still qualify as"organic" even though there's bound to be some trace mana)? Are there magical dairy farms? How do they distribute their milk, and if wizards can't use technologies, how do they keep it cold? OK, magic, sure. But why? Is it really easier to keep a small portion of the house cold by magic than by plugging in a Frigidaire? (the zero-cost nature of magic brings up all kinds of questions about the fundamental nature of magic, but I'll leave that for another day) Why can't wizards use technology? Is it the electricity? Natural processes? Or is it some silly taboo that is going to eventually result in mundane lifestyles exceeding magical ones in quality, leaving wizards to commune with the Mennonites?
Apparently there's some politics in the latest outing, which raises all kinds of other questions. Why is the headmaster of the school the leader of wizardom (at least English wizardry; there's a whole realm of magical foreign relations as yet untapped by the conspiracies and maneuvers and stereotypes of the series) instead of the Minister of Magic? (Is there a higher education system, or is Hogwarts the
Harvard Oxford of Magic, and anything beyond that has to be apprenticeships, i.e. graduate school?) How did this come about, and how does it work? How did mundane-magical relations evolve during the transition to democracy?
Even such a basic question as population is very unclear. It's not clear whether the magical population is in the thousands, hundreds of thousands or tens of millions. There seem to be an awful lot of magical beasts and people around sometimes, but there also seem to be a very small circle of decision-makers such that small conspiracies and cliques could wield immense influence. Everyone seems to know everyone and everyone knows about Harry and what's-'is-name, but mysteries abound (in spite of the very effective muckraking journalism that is in play). If the population is large (and the journalism, geography and sporting leagues suggest that), interactions with mundanes would likely be smoother and more fluid; if the population is small (as suggested by the politics, one-school education system and relative lack of mundane contact), why aren't they talking about the alarming rate at which mundanes are taking over territory and developing these magic-like technologies?
Sure, Harry and friends are youths, as yet unconcerned (except perhaps for Hermione) with larger social issues while they struggle through maturation and good v. evil. But the series needs an historian, preferably a live one.... I need context, background, texture, coherence; I want to know how this world works, and how people really live in it. That's what would actually make it interesting for me.
One interesting development: the braille version of this installmentbegan shipping the same day that the book was released, which is, as near as anyone knows, a first for braille publishing. There have been books released simultaneously in print and braille before, but only special publications directed to blind and blind-services audiences. This is the first commercial release to make it into braille print immediately. NPR's Weekend Edition had a nice interview with National Braille Press (NBP)'s Diane Croft [full disclosure: my wife works for her] about the process. Bookshare.org got the book up in a couple of hours, as they did last time -- my wife began reading that version, until her audio CDs get here (curiously, they weren't shipped out to arrive Saturday, because of a security breach last time) -- but the scan quality reflects the speed with which the job was done. NBP worked directly from the Scholastic files and maintains very high production standards; last time NBP didn't get the files until the day of release, so the book was delayed a few weeks, but, as Diane noted in the interview, they're used to handing state test materials, so security is nothing new, and Scholastic finally got on board.
In other blindness technology news, Ray Kurzweil (who once was a certifiable genius; now he auctions off lunch dates to support longevity research) has put together a text recognition engine (which he helped invent), a digital camera and a pocketPC to create a very portable and very robust"reading machine" for the blind. Off-the-shelf 21st century technology, a little engineering and voilá! Real magic.
update: For another interview about the NBP production process, very nicely done, go to my second favorite Boston radio station, WBUR.