On June 26, 1997, British publishing company Bloomsbury took a risk and released a book titled "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone." The author, an unknown writer named Joanne Rowling, had sent the manuscript to 12 different publishers before Bloomsbury picked it up. They said boys wouldn't want to read a book written by a woman, so they encouraged her to go by her initials. Joanne Rowling adopted Katherine, her grandmother's name, as her middle name, and published her first novel as J.K. Rowling. Her agent warned her she would "never make a fortune out of writing children's books."
The original print run was for only 500 copies, 300 of which were sent directly to libraries. In 2007, one of those original copies sold for $18,000 at auction. In 2013, another first edition—this one with handwritten commentary and 22 original illustrations from J.K. Rowling—went for just shy of a quarter of a million dollars in a charity auction. More than 400 million copies of the "Harry Potter" books have been sold worldwide.
"Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" was wildly successful in the U.K. and quickly started accruing awards. Scholastic Publishing optioned the book for release in the United States, and in September 2008, they released "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." (The name was changed after Scholastic raised concerns that kids wouldn't want to read a book about a philosopher.)
Since then, of course, Harry Potter has become a worldwide phenomenon. Rowling's book—written in her spare time while she was a single mother living on welfare—has inspired eight movies and its own theme park (with another in the works). It's also inspired tattoos, a trove of fan fiction, inspirational speeches, and more than a few themed weddings.
Oh, and it's made Rowling richer than the Queen of England.
Obviously the book did well with customers and book reviewers. Publishers Weekly called it "a delightful romp" and loved the "magical game of soccer-like Quidditch." The New York Times said it was "full of wonderful, sly humor" and had "impressively three-dimensional" characters who "move seamlessly through the narrative."
But not everyone was convinced. Like anything that achieves major cultural status, Harry Potter had his share of haters. (He also had a big fan in the libertarian community—scroll to the bottom to see a fan letter to the "golden galleon standard.") To wish Harry Potter a happy 17th anniversary of his initial publication, we're taking a look back at some of the most bizarre reviews he received.
The Guardian, "Why Harry Potter doesn't cast a spell over me," June 2000
Surprise! An old white British man thought Harry Potter books sucked and that they were actively contributing to the downfall of society.
"As a workout for the brain, reading (or being read) Harry Potter is an activity marginally less testing than watching Neighbours. And that, at least, is vaguely about real life. These are one-dimensional children's books, Disney cartoons written in words, no more.
"We are a country with dramatically declining standards of literacy, increasingly dragged down to the lowest common denominator by the purveyors of all forms of mindless mass entertainment. The success of the Potter books is just another dispiriting proof of the Murdoch-led dumbing down of all our lives, or what Hensher called 'the infantilisation of adult culture'.
"What I do object to is a pedestrian, ungrammatical prose style which has left me with a headache and a sense of a wasted opportunity. If Rowling is blessed with this magic gift of tapping into young minds, I can only wish she had made better use of it. Her characters, unlike life's, are all black-and-white. Her story-lines are predictable, the suspense minimal, the sentimentality cloying every page. (Did Harry, like so many child-heroes before him, HAVE to be yet another poignant orphan?)"
Christianity Today, "The Perils of Harry Potter," October 2000
The secondary headline for this story is "Literary device or not, witchcraft is real - and dangerous." The author goes on to compare writing a book about magic to teaching kids to drink rat poison. No, seriously.
"Though the parallels (between drinking rat poison and Rowling's books) are hardly exact, this is what we're talking about regarding the Harry Potter series. We're taking something deadly from our world and turning it into what some are calling 'merely a literary device.' Regardless of how magic is portrayed in the series, we need to remember that witchcraft in real life can and does lead to death—the forever and ever kind.
"Our world is exploding with interest in real witchcraft. Type 'How can I become a witch?' in Google.com and you'll get listings for dozens of related sites. The same query in AskJeeves.com brings up many articles—the main one giving a simple eight-step process for becoming a witch on your own."
Incidentally, AskJeeves.com still exists, and the first result hasn’t changed since 2000. Which is probably why no one has used AskJeeves since then.
Catholic Education Resource Center, "Not Quite Narnia: The Harry Potter books in review," December 1999
In a surprising move for the Catholics, this website for parents and educators took a more measured approach to the accusations of real witchcraft in the wizarding world. But they didn't like it anyways.
"Despite the potential minefield of occultism, one has to breathe very deeply to get a whiff of real paganism here. The witchcraft in Potter's world is the 'trick-or-treat' sort. Wizardry is an occupation, not a religion. But if you aren't keen on today's commercialized version of Halloween, you won't enjoy the Harry Potter stories either.
"In fact, the failure of author J.K. Rowling's world is that it is pure cotton candy. Her books are entertaining but the lessons are shallow. Rare lines such as, 'It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities,' — are shoehorned painfully into the dialogue. Besides, the chief motivation for most characters in the books, including Harry, appears to be revenge, whether it's getting back at Lord Voldemort or the school bully.
"The Harry Potter series suffers from the common flaw in most children's books today: It's a kids' world and the rest of us are merely players. Teachers range from incompetent to cruel. Lying and rule-breaking are instrumental to the plot and rarely punished. All the children have sharp tongues and often resort to threats of physical violence to resolve disputes. Unfortunately, these themes are all too common in today's children's books and frequently predict popular success."
The Wall Street Journal, "Can 35 Million Book Buyers Be Wrong? Yes.", July 2000
Harold Bloom's scorching criticism of the Potter books is a literary legend in and of itself. Much like the old white guy who wrote the review for The Guardian, Bloom says that in HIS DAY, books were real books, not fun things children might like to read. His favorite part was when Harry almost died.
"Though the book is not well written, that is not in itself a crucial liability. It is much better to see the movie, 'The Wizard of Oz,' than to read the book upon which it was based, but even the book possessed an authentic imaginative vision. 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone' does not, so that one needs to look elsewhere for the book's (and its sequels') remarkable success.
"Hogwarts enchants many of Harry's fans, perhaps because it is much livelier than the schools they attend, but it seems to me an academy more tiresome than grotesque. When the future witches and wizards of Great Britain are not studying how to cast a spell, they preoccupy themselves with bizarre intramural sports. It is rather a relief when Harry heroically suffers the ordeal of a confrontation with Voldemort, which the youth handles admirably.
"One can reasonably doubt that 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone' is going to prove a classic of children's literature, but Rowling, whatever the aesthetic weaknesses of her work, is at least a millennial index to our popular culture.
"Her prose style, heavy on cliche, makes no demands upon her readers. In an arbitrarily chosen single page—page 4—of the first Harry Potter book, I count seven cliches, all of the 'stretch his legs' variety.
"How to read 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone'? Why, very quickly, to begin with, perhaps also to make an end. Why read it? Presumably, if you cannot be persuaded to read anything better, Rowling will have to do."
BONUS REVIEW: The Foundation for Economic Freedom, "Why Classical Liberals Should Love Harry Potter," December 2000
The Foundation for Economic Freedom is a libertarian organization. ("Classical liberal" is code for libertarian, more or less.) This is actually a very positive review of the book—though, ideologically, a bit of a stretch.
"The Potter books are, despite Bloom's criticism, great fun to read. Rowling is also the best known 'welfare to work' story I’ve heard in quite some time. The first book was written (supposedly on napkins) in coffee shops in Britain while the single mother was on welfare—she's now obviously become quite wealthy. But those aren't the reasons classical liberals should love these books.
"Classical liberals should love Harry Potter because there are three strikingly classical liberal features of the wizarding world. The first is its banking and monetary system. Really. Wizards do not use ordinary English fiat currency, instead their money supply is based on precious metals. Gold Galleons, Silver Sickles, and Copper Knuts are the basis of wizarding commercial transactions. And there are lots of those transactions—despite their powers, wizards must buy most of the things they need from the private sector. Wizards keep their money in Gringotts, a private bank run by goblins who are quite ruthless in protecting the money entrusted to their care.
"The second classical liberal feature is the extent to which commerce is presented favorably. True, Uncle Vernon's business career, like everything else about Uncle Vernon, is not exactly gripping stuff. But the most exciting places in the wizarding world are Diagon Alley, the wizard shopping zone in London, and Hogsmeade, the only all-wizard village in England, which is crammed to the gills with fascinating shops. Harry's friends, George and Fred Weasley, aspire to open a shop themselves, selling wizarding jokes, rather than follow their brother and father into government. Sporting broomsticks are manufactured competitively, and new models are brought out as regularly as new cars are in the Muggle world.
"Most important, however, is the role of the government. Wizards don't have much to do with Muggles, and so most of the British government has little relevance to the lives of wizards—truly a fantasy situation. Nonetheless, there is a Ministry of Magic, headed by a wizard minister. What is amazing—remember these are books by a former welfare mother—is that the ministry does almost nothing. Its primary focus is preventing Muggles from figuring out that there are wizards living among them—allowing the wizards to live in peace. No anti-discrimination laws, no quotas for magical folks—just memory charms to make Muggles who stumble on the wizards forget they are there.
"There is no Department of Wizard Welfare, no minimum wage for wizards, no safety commission for magical charms. There is plenty of opportunity for such stuff—Harry's friend Ron comes from a poor wizard family and must make do with secondhand clothes and wands, but his family doesn't receive any government assistance."
So, to conclude, early readers thought Harry Potter was poorly written, destined to be forgotten, full of deadly witchcraft, and possibly some sort of Ron Paul propaganda. It hasn’t quite lived up to those things, but it does occupy a very special place in millions of readers’ hearts. Happy anniversary, Harry!