Book Review: “Open at the Close,” Edited by Cecilia Konchar Farr
Whether Open at the Close: Literary Essays on Harry Potter is truly, as it claims, “the first collection of essays focused exclusively on examining the Harry Potter novels as literature” is up for debate, but what is certain is that the volume is full of insightful and original explorations of the series rooted in critical theory. It may be argued both that other anthologies have focused on the series as literature, as opposed to a cultural phenomenon analyzed through the lens of fandom, and that some chapters in this volume veer into other fields of study, drawing from philosophy, gender studies, and psychology and considering reader response. But categorization of the book aside, it provides a wide variety of perspectives, some satisfyingly in dialogue with each other, with the main focus always being on the Harry Potter novels, their composition, and how to read them.
Right off the bat, the book does not shy away from discussing the controversy surrounding the author. Editor Cecilia Konchar Farr acknowledges and condemns Rowling’s comments about transgender people, and the volume comes full circle by ending with a coda from nonbinary contributor Tolonda Henderson reflecting on their own engagement with Potter in the face of the author’s views. The general tone of the book seems to be similar to the stance we have taken here at MuggleNet: while we cannot condone Rowling’s behavior, we still see value in discussing the series, particularly from a critical standpoint.
The essays use a variety of approaches and tones, including both quantitative data and personal anecdotes. The contrast between the first two chapters is representative of the variety throughout the book. Konchar Farr and Amy Mars’s essay “Ascendio: A Close and Distant Reading of Progressive Complexity in the Harry Potter Series” is a uniquely data-driven analysis complete with tables and word maps tracking the evolution of language through the series, while Potterversity host Emily Strand’s experience in a creative writing group guides her investigation in “Said Hermione Earnestly: Harry Potter‘s Prose, and Why It Doesn’t Matter.”
The volume has a good combination of new life breathed into well-worn topics and less commonly explored perspectives. Kate Glassman’s chapter about McGonagall is based on a paper she delivered at the Harry Potter Academic Conference at Chestnut Hill College, which I had the opportunity to hear in 2019. I remember being impressed at the time by her discussion of a character who was not often examined in scholarship, and the published version is also a refreshing and multifaceted look at an understudied but omnipresent figure. Another uncommon but fascinating topic covered is medicine and healing in the wizarding world (Jennifer M. Reeher). Trauma (Henderson), werewolves (Jonathan A. Rose), and other nonhuman creatures (Keridiana Chez, Juliana Valadão Lopes), all frequent points of attention in Potter studies, receive distinct treatments that work off existing scholarship to present new ideas.
There is praise for the artistry of the series alongside criticism of stereotypes and the continuing inequality of the wizarding world. Some chapters, such as Lauren R. Camacci’s “The Face of Evil: Physiognomy in Potter,” are uncomfortable but important to read, forcing us to confront bias infused in the series and our culture more broadly.
Open at the Close is both an intellectually and emotionally stimulating read, probing the depths of the Harry Potter novels to uncover the appealing, comforting, disturbing, and confusing aspects that keep us not only rereading but still thinking and talking about these books years after their release.
Open at the Close is published by the University Press of Mississippi and is available now.