October 18, 2007


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—Large Print Edition. By J.K. Rowling. Thorndike Press. $34.95.

The Tin Roof Blowdown—Large Print Edition. By James Lee Burke. Wheeler Publishing/Thomson Gale. $33.95.

      Everyone knows what large-print books are for. They’re to allow elderly readers and others with failing eyesight the chance to enjoy a small selection of moderately popular, moderately interesting works. The books are found in special sections of stores and public libraries, often out of the way of the “regular-print” books of which they are a small subset.

      As happens so often, what “everyone knows” turns out to be wrong. Super-popular books as well as the less successful ones that publishers call “midlist” titles are increasingly available in large print – and the format turns out to have a reach far beyond what has been seen as its traditional purview.

      These two top-notch recent novels are excellent cases in point. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is, of course, the seventh and final book in J.K. Rowling’s tremendously popular saga of the young wizard and his mortal enemy, Lord Voldemort. A book of grand sweep and considerably more darkness than the six that came before – although the mood of the series had already been becoming sadder, more adult and more overtly frightening – the seventh book presents all-out war between the forces of good and evil magic, and is highly intriguing in the way it deepens some one-dimensional characters by making them more recognizably human. This is certainly true of Dumbledore, the apparent paragon of virtue right up to his death at the end of the sixth book, who turns out to be deeply flawed and motivated by a level of selfishness not seen before in the series. More interestingly, it is true of Snape, who is in many ways the most fascinating character in the series and in its conclusion, even though his appearances in the final book are limited. The scene portraying the dying Snape’s need to gaze into Harry’s eyes before breathing his last is the closest Rowling has come to writing tragedy. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is flawed: not everything is satisfactorily explained (how does the Sword of Gryffindor end up in the Sorting Hat at a crucial moment?), and not all fates are satisfactorily sorted out (why didn’t someone squash that noisome pseudo-journalist, Rita Skeeter?). But it concludes the series in a highly satisfactory way.

      The Tin Roof Blowdown is part of a series, too. It is James Lee Burke’s 16th Dave Robicheaux novel. The world-weary Vietnam vet with a love-hate relationship with the city of New Orleans is instantly familiar to Burke’s many fans. So is the novel’s structure, in which Robicheaux and his equally angst-ridden friend, Cletus (Clete) Purcel, are caught in the middle of the good and the bad, the powerless and the powerful, and have to sort everything out while solving a variety of crimes. What makes The Tin Roof Blowdown special is its setting: New Orleans after its devastation by Hurricane Katrina. The descriptions of the city’s near-destruction, of the bodies scattered about through the fury of Nature (which Burke nicely contrasts with the fury of human-on-human violence), of the unending devastation through which Robicheaux and Purcel move as they seek in their small way to right some wrongs, are frightening and deeply moving. Indeed, the city and the hurricane are characters at least as strong as any of the mere humans here. Yes, there are flaws in the book, as Burke lets himself get a touch too carried away with the intermingling of real world and fiction. He descends at times into a near-diatribe against the federal government, for example, while giving a pass to New Orleans and Louisiana officials who in fact were just as incompetent and corrupt as the feds. But Burke’s occasional overstepping of the bounds of high-quality fiction writing does not make The Tin Roof Blowdown any less dramatic – and the eventual climax knits together the various plot strands with Burke’s usual skill.

      As different as they are, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and The Tin Roof Blowdown work remarkably well in these high-quality large-print editions, which include the novels’ complete texts and even the attractive Mary GrandPré illustrations for Rowling’s work. In many ways, the differences between the books are what point the way to the enlarged role that large print can assume and is assuming. Rowling’s books, although written for a young audience, have attracted people of all ages – but why not let young people who have difficulty reading try them in large-print format? Why not use large print for students struggling with English as a second language – so they can see the words more easily and progress more quickly from page to page, obtaining a feeling of accomplishment sooner? Younger readers given a choice between standard-print and large-print books find large print easier to read – which means that less-skilled readers of any age are more likely to make their way through fast-paced, exciting novels like these if they see them in large print rather than potentially more intimidating standard print. Both Rowling and Burke are experts at pacing their books, but both do dwell at times on descriptions and background information – elements that may slow down less-nimble readers. Large print helps by making the pages go by more quickly (interestingly, although these large-print books are longer in page count than the standard-print ones, they do not have significantly more heft). Letter and word-recognition skills for slower learners and non-native English speakers can be improved by the use of larger text, and people of all ages are more likely to enjoy reading lessons (and to comprehend what they are reading better) if they can see the words more clearly and go through the books with greater ease. Large-print books will continue to play an important role for older adults and people with visual difficulties. But as more and more titles become available, having greater appeal to a wider variety of ages, the large-print books have the potential to expand into new and increasingly diverse areas. You might even say their future is being writ large.

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