Between authorship and readership: the British Library’s Harry Potter exhibition

It’s fair to say the Harry Potter books were something of a success. And what greater honour to be attributed them than to be the subject of an exhibition at the British Library – next door to the inspiration for Platform 9 ¾, and within one mile of the publishing house that finally gave one JK Rowling a shot. When you think about it, it all seems the natural conclusion to a most spectacular story.

Despite it being two decades since Potter first made waves, wandering (or rather crawling, as is the pace set by the hordes of visitors) round the exhibition brings the magic to life once again, more than ten years after the publication of the final instalment.

What made it all the more real for me was that the exhibition seemed not just an indulgence of the series’ many fans but a more holistic exploration of the book’s origins and evolution. Some of the most illuminating aspects were how this exhibition exposed not just the writer’s process but the book’s assumption to a station wholly distinct from reader and author’s influence.

Greeting the visitors on arrival is the typed synopsis – a piece in which the vacancy of expectation is palpable. It is pared back and somewhat mundane, and brings home that feeling of a writer’s worst nightmare – having to translate into cold, hard seriffed characters the work of five years’ worth of dreaming, slog and ‘snatched’ hours, as Rowling later tells it.

Any writer who has ever pursued a book deal knows the agony of writing a synopsis – the condensed, marketable form of the very thing you’ve spent years crafting just as it is. For a writer, the aim is to make a novel good enough to sell itself. Still, for the time-poor publisher that handy introduction is a necessary evil. And you can feel a kind of absence – or naivety – in Rowling’s.

The synopsis is one of the most telling pieces from the collection for me and it beautifully bookends the exhibit along with one of the very last pieces on display – the annotated first edition of the Philosopher’s Stone which was auctioned off for charity.

On the very first page of this edition, Rowling makes it clear that, try as she might, she will never be able to explain the real magic that came about in the penning of this novel. It’s a neat way of closing the exhibition and speaks volumes about the writing process. That no matter how momentous a book, no matter how many readers’ lives it touches, a part of it remains always with the author.

In her biro’d notes she writes that for all the memories she can insert in between the lines, the act is in the end futile because the story of the book’s creation is actually written into every page, yet legible only to her. This solitary piece of possession, or retention, is perhaps important for her to assert when it comes to a book that has been subject to so many adaptations, imaginings, illustrations and interpretations. The truly bewitching thing about memory and writing, after all, is that it reveals itself in different guises over and over. With every turn of the page no doubt a new recollection is uncovered.

Curiously, on the morning of my visit to the exhibition, an interesting discussion was taking place on Radio 4’s Start the Week as I gathered my belongings in the basement of the King’s Cross Travelodge. As the show’s guests delved into the nuances of the brain and personality, they spoke about how the process of recollection is really only a recall of the last time we remembered that specific event. And that with each visit to the memory vaults we shape our recollections once more before filing them away again. Memories are also considered to have a stronger, longer lasting impact when they’re first lived as emotional experiences.

No doubt the upheaval of plotting and writing a series as big as Harry Potter culminated in many emotional memories for Rowling, not least as she battled through 12 rejection slips, living in penury, raising a young family and the death of her mother. But by this token, even the history of its writing, those indelible memories etched into the page and visible only to her, are changeable shapeshifters. At the end of the day, the only thing which endures is that set out in black ink on recycled wood pulp.

After I first read a Harry Potter book I was enchanted, like most. But I was never one of the most ardent fans. I found it enjoyable, more so as the series gathered in intensity, and it proved to be a communal point of interest amongst friends.

Journeying through the exhibition, however, I appreciated the books so much more. The richness of Rowling’s reservoir of inspiration was awe-inspiring, and it taught me far more about magic in the wider context of literature and culture, not to mention the depth of research she put into the books, than I could have known before.

The inclusion of a few original MS attempts that dead-ended (such as the alternative beginning and many cut scenes) only served to magnify how distanced the reader will always be from the author’s process. In terms of understanding the process of story concept to magnum opus, it’s the equivalent of shining a laser beam on the Sistine Chapel.

And, then again, vice versa.

As the annotations on the first page of that private lender’s copy show, the author doesn’t hold all the cards and, for most writers, it is mere fluke knowing what will or won’t strike a chord with the readership. As Rowling points out, most people tell her they didn’t like the first chapter, and that they had to persevere with it to get to the real meat of the story. It turns out, even the things we most want to share can be the hardest hurdles to clear. But it isn’t impossible. It’s difficult to remember whether I was in that boat when I first cracked the spine on the Philosopher’s Stone way back in the late 90s. But then again, I was reluctant to enjoy the books at all and eventually read them just to quiet a friend. But, somehow, something magical happened…

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