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Harry Potter and the
Role of Compression in Literature

Over Thanksgiving weekend I was awash in Harry Potter. Not only did I see the movie twice but also read the three volumes I had not read previously and reread the original story. Admittedly this was a large dose of escapist literature, but after a summer with too few opportunities for rest and relaxation, I was ready to escape; and the world of Harry Potter was clearly an exotic and attractive destination. Working as I do in a pretty magical place already, I began to work out logically how Hogwarts would be any more desirable a place than St. Albans. Although I have not stumbled across any three-headed dogs to date or flown around the campus on broomstick, we have many great students; we live and work in a veritable garden; and there are no shortage of adventures here.

What finally occurred to me is that the world of Harry Potter glosses over some things that real teachers and students live through day by day. In spite of the highlights we see in the movie, Hogwarts students had to go to class day after day as we do--even on dreary days. They had homework. The hallways and classrooms such as the potions classroom grew cold in winter. In short, the story of Harry Potter has skipped over the mundane that surely existed even at Hogwarts. This diminishes its attractiveness not a bit, but after a while even riding a broom might become less exciting--which brings me to the concept of compression.

What makes Harry Potter's world seem so much more intense than ours is more than the magic. The way J. K. Rowling has compressed the entire school year into her book, choosing just the right details to propel the action, develop the characters, set up details for future books, and create the magical world of her novel--this is the key to the books' success, as it is a distinguishing characteristic of many enjoyable books and articles. Just as poetry distills the essence of a thought or situation into the fewest words or sounds possible, good story-writing grows from planning and editing to compress maximum detail about setting, character, plot, and theme into the smallest space appropriate to convey (without confusing gaps or extended blather) the intensity of the experience.


© 2001 J. Adrian Verkouteren