Digital Harry Potter Library Highlights the Magic in Historical Texts

The New York Academy of Medicine
The New York Academy of Medicine

To Harry Potter fans, the rare books room at the New York Academy of Medicine may feel familiar. Musty leather-bound books line the walls behind screens; moldings of griffins adorn the plaster ceiling; a cat skeleton with arched vertebrae crouches on a bookshelf. Stepping inside the room feels like you’ve apparated to Hogwarts.

Anne Garner, the curator of rare books and manuscripts at the academy, is well aware of the similarities. But she didn’t realize just how deep they ran until stumbling upon a card catalogue labeled "witchcraft" in the archives. "When I saw the card catalogue, the connection with people saying this room feels like Hogwarts sort of clicked," she said at a press event.

Illustration of a phoenix.
Ulisse's Aldrovandi's Phoenix from the 1664 book "Monstrorum Historia"
The New York Academy of Medicine

That was the impetus behind the library's new digital collection, "How to Pass Your O.W.L at Hogwarts: A Prep Course," which highlights real texts from the rare books room and matches them to fictional courses taught at Hogwarts. While much of J.K. Rowling's world is her own invention, many of the creatures, objects, and even people she writes about are lifted from European history and mythology. Garner searched for these real-life inspirations when selecting books to feature in the virtual library.

The "Potions" section, for example, includes a description of a bezoar, the same ruminal hairball that Harry feeds to a poisoned Ron in The Half Blood Prince. One book under "Transfiguration" mentions Nicolas Flamel, the actual figure who’s credited with creating the philosopher's stone in the first Harry Potter book.

Illustration of star thistle
Star thistle from Nicholas Culpeper's 17th-century book "English Physician"
The New York Academy of Medicine

The digital collection is filled with vibrant illustrations dating back to the 15th century. Books in "Care of Magical Creatures" depict basilisks and unicorns alongside snakes and narwhals (or “unicorns of the sea,” as they were known centuries ago). "One of the things I love about Harry Potter is that it presents us with this world that’s very familiar but at the same time totally upends our ideas about nature," Garner said. She sees this reflected in many books written prior to the 20th century. "You find things that are grounded in reality and things that are total fantasy."

Illustration of a basilisk.
Ulisse Aldrovandi's basilisk
The New York Academy of Medicine

Like the Harry Potter series, these books often look at elements from the natural world through a fantastical lens. When describing mandrakes, an encyclopedia of natural history depicts the real plants as tiny creatures with human bodies and leaves sprouting from their heads. It even instructs readers to don earmuffs before harvesting them—just like Harry learns to do in his Herbology course.

Illustrations of male and female mandrakes.
A pair of mandrakes from the 15th-century "Hortus Sanitatis"
The New York Academy of Medicine

The New York Academy of Medicine was established in 1847 as a public health organization, and today it’s home to one of the most impressive historical libraries of medicine in the world. The rare books room is open to the public by appointment, and a special exhibit of books in the Harry Potter collection may be offered in the near future. For now, the select texts are available online. "How to Pass Your O.W.L at Hogwarts" goes live on Monday, June 26, just in time for the 20-year anniversary of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Muggles can visit the academy's website to relive Harry's literary experiences—minus the biting and screaming textbooks.

What 10 Classic Books Were Almost Called

iStock
iStock

Remember when your high school summer reading list included Atticus, Fiesta, and The Last Man in Europe? You will once you see what these books were renamed before they hit bookshelves.

1. THE GREAT GATSBY

F. Scott Fitzgerald went through quite a few titles for his most well-known book before deciding on The Great Gatsby. If he hadn’t arrived at that title, high school kids would be pondering the themes of Trimalchio in West Egg; Among Ash-Heaps and Millionaires; On the Road to West Egg; Under the Red, White, and Blue; Gold-Hatted Gatsby; or The High-Bouncing Lover. Just weeks before publication, he cabled his publisher “CRAZY ABOUT TITLE UNDER THE RED WHITE AND BLUE STOP [WHAT] WOULD DELAY BE.” But he was talked out of it.

The author would later say of the Gatsby title, “It’s O.K. but my heart tells me I should have named it Trimalchio ... Gatsby is too much like Babbit and The Great Gatsby is weak because there’s no emphasis even ironically on his greatness or lack of it. However let it pass.”

2. 1984

George Orwell’s publisher didn’t feel the title to the author's novel, The Last Man in Europe, was terribly commercial. He recommended using the other title Orwell had been kicking around—1984.

3. ATLAS SHRUGGED

Ayn Rand referred to her magnum opus as The Strike for quite some time. In 1956, a year before the book was released, she decided the title gave away too much plot detail. Her husband suggested Atlas Shrugged—then a chapter title—and it stuck.

4. DRACULA

The title of Bram Stoker’s famous Gothic novel sounded more like a spoof before he landed on Dracula—one of the names Stoker considered was The Dead Un-Dead.

5. THE SUN ALSO RISES

Ernest Hemingway’s original title for his 1926 novel—Fiesta—was used for foreign editions, but the American English version was called The Sun Also Rises. Another supposed candidate was “For in much wisdom is much grief and he that increases knowlege [sic] increaseth sorrow.”

6. CATCH-22

Author Joseph Heller wanted to name his story Catch-18, but Leon Uris’s novel Mila 18—released the previous year—made editor Robert Gottlieb want to change the title. He and Heller looked into Catch-11, but because the original Ocean’s Eleven movie was newly in theaters, it was scrapped to avoid confusion. After toying with other numbers, his editor decided on 22, capturing the repetition of 11.

7.TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD

To Kill a Mockingbird was simply Atticus before Harper Lee decided the title focused too narrowly on one character.

8. PRIDE AND PREJUDICE

An apt precursor to the title Jane Austen finally decided on for her most beloved novel was First Impressions (it’s been proposed that a name change was needed because Margaret Holford published a novel called First Impressions; or the Portrait).

9. THE SECRET GARDEN

Mistress Mary (nowadays better known as Mary, Mary), "quite contrary, how does your garden grow?" Secretly, apparently. Mistress Mary, taken from the classic nursery rhyme, was the working title for Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden.

10. DUBLINERS

Originally called Ulysses in Dublin, James Joyce’s book of short stories, Dubliners, featured many characters that would later appear in his epic Ulysses a few years later.

This piece originally ran in 2010.

11 Scrumdiddlyumptious Roald Dahl Facts

Getty Images
Getty Images

A world without Roald Dahl would be a world without Oompa Loompas, Snozzcumbers, or Muggle-Wumps. And who would ever want to live in a world like that? So today, on what would have been the author and adventurer’s 102nd birthday, we celebrate Roald Dahl Day with these 11 gloriumptious facts about the master of edgy kids' books.

1. WRITING WAS NEVER ROALD DAHL’S BEST SUBJECT.

Dahl held onto a school report he had written as a kid, on which his teacher noted: “I have never met anybody who so persistently writes words meaning the exact opposite of what is intended.”

2. MAKING UP NONSENSICAL WORDS WAS PART OF WHAT DAHL DID BEST.

When writing 1982’s The BFG, Dahl created 238 new words for the book’s protagonist, which he dubbed Gobblefunk.

3. HIS FIRST PROFESSION WAS A PILOT.

And not just any pilot: Dahl was a fighter pilot with the Royal Air Force during World War II. And it was a plane crash near Alexandria, Egypt that actually inspired him to begin writing.

4. HE GOT INTO SOME 007 KIND OF STUFF, TOO.

Alongside fellow officers Ian Fleming and David Ogilvy, Dahl supplied intelligence to an MI6 organization known as the British Security Coordination.

5. DAHL’S FIRST PUBLISHED PIECE WAS ACCIDENTAL.

Upon recovering from that plane crash, Dahl was reassigned to Washington, D.C., where he worked as an assistant air attaché. He was approached by author C.S. Forester, who was writing a piece for The Saturday Evening Post and looking to interview someone who had been on the frontlines of the war. Dahl offered to write some notes on his experiences, but when Forester received them he didn’t want to change a word. He submitted Dahl’s notes—originally titled “A Piece of Cake”—to his editor and on August 1, 1942, Roald Dahl officially became a published author. He was paid $1000 for the story, which had been retitled “Shot Down Over Libya” for dramatic effect.

6. HIS FIRST CHILDREN’S BOOK WAS INSPIRED BY THE ROYAL AIR FORCE.

Published in 1942, The Gremlins was about a group of mischievous creatures who tinkered with the RAF’s planes. Though the movie rights were purchased by Walt Disney, a film version never materialized. Dahl would go on to become one of the world’s bestselling fiction authors, with more than 100 million copies of his books published in nearly 50 languages.

7. DAHL READ PLAYBOY FOR THE ARTICLES.

Or at least his own articles. While he’s best known as a children’s author, Dahl was just as prolific in the adult short story sphere. His stories were published in a range of outlets, including Collier’s, Ladies Home Journal, Harper’s, The New Yorker, and Playboy, where his topics of choice included wife-swapping, promiscuity, suicide, and adultery. Several of these stories were published as part of Dahl’s Switch Bitch anthology.

8. QUENTIN TARANTINO ADAPTED DAHL TO THE BIG SCREEN.

One of Dahl’s best-known adult short stories, “Man from the South” (a.k.a. “The Smoker”), was adapted to celluloid three times, twice as part of Alfred Hitchock Presents (once in 1960 with Steve McQueen and Peter Lorre, and again in 1985) and a third time as the final segment in 1995’s film anthology Four Rooms, which Quentin Tarantino directed.

9. DAHL’S OWN ATTEMPTS AT SCREENWRITING WERE NOT AS SUCCESSFUL.

One would think that, with his intriguing background and talent for words, Dahl’s transition from novelist to screenwriter would be an easy one ... but you would be wrong. Dahl was hired to adapt two of Ian Fleming’s novels, the James Bond novel You Only Live Once and the kid-friendly Chitty Chitty Bang Bang; both scripts were completely rewritten. Dahl was also hired to adapt Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for the big screen, but was replaced by David Seltzer when he couldn’t make his deadlines. Dahl was not shy about his criticisms of the finished product, noting his “disappointment” that the film (and its changed title) shifted the story’s emphasis from Charlie to Willy Wonka.

10. DAHL MADE AN IMPORTANT CONTRIBUTION TO THE FIELD OF NEUROSURGERY.

In 1960, Dahl’s four-month-old son Theo’s carriage was struck by a cab driver in New York City, leaving the child suffering from hydrocephalus, a condition that increases fluid in the brain. Dahl became very actively involved in his son’s recovery, and contacted toymaker Stanley Wade for help. Together with Theo’s neurosurgeon, Kenneth Till, the trio developed a shunt that helped to alleviate the condition. It became known as the Wade-Dahl-Till valve.

11. EVEN IN DEATH, DAHL’S SENSE OF HUMOR WAS APPARENT.

Roald Dahl passed away from a blood disease on November 23, 1990 at the age of 74. Per his request, he was buried with all of his favorite things: snooker cues, a bottle of Burgundy, chocolate, HB pencils, and a power saw.

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