Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Reminiscences on the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter

So, twenty years ago yesterday, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was published. I've seen a few retrospectives of people dealing with their relationship to the series (one here and another here), so I thought I'd add mine. I have to warn you -- this is a True Believer as well as a Convert speaking. Back during my undergraduate days, I had sniffed haughtily at all the Pottermania surrounding me. In fact, I nearly punched the first person who ever called me a muggle: 

"What's a muggle, dear friend of mine whom I'd never punch under normal circumstances?" 

"You're a muggle."

Highbrow literary elitist that I imagined myself to be, I refused to read either children's books or popular books. That all changed during the fall of 2007 -- I remember because that's the year Cleveland came within two outs of reaching the World Series. Anyway, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows had just been published that summer and, while up in Kent for a friend's wedding, I browsed randomly through the Kent State bookstore and got two books just for giggles: Bill Reading's The University in Ruins and (you guessed it) J.K. Rowling's HP and the Sorcerer's Stone. This was nothing more than interesting side reading for me; I did a lot of side reading back then to stave off grad school burnout.

Well, the book stayed on my shelves a few months. That September, I read it over the course of a single afternoon. I remember thinking, "What a fun little book" -- clearly designed for younger readers, but fast-paced, inventive, and Rowling showed a clear talent for handling a narrative. The following weekend, I spent another pleasant afternoon reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Again, fun little book, if not anything exactly earth-shattering. The heroes were sufficiently charming, the villains sufficiently dastardly, and so forth.

Then, the next weekend, I read Harry Potter and the Prince of Azkaban.

I'm not sure when exactly I realized that I held the makings of a masterpiece in my hands, but it was definitely sometime during this book. It may have been near the end, just as Harry was realizing who had sent the stag Patronus against the Dementors. For the life of me, I could not remember the last time I had seen a writer bring together so many different plot threads so powerfully, so masterfully, in such a short time. And that was not even the end of my admiration; the denouement where Dumbledore explains things to Harry worked just as well as the culmination of the actual action. To weave a narrative that long without once letting it get away from you, to never strike a single wrong note when creating scenes back-to-back-to-back like that, all that takes an immense amount of craft. That's when Rowling hooked me.

Over the next two weeks or so, I basically put my Masters program on hold as I finished the series. I read Deathly Hallows in just one day -- from dawn to dusk, basically. I was no spring chicken, either -- I was 27 years old at the time, so none of that "you're too old to appreciate the books" argument for me. But let me tell you -- and I'll bench press the punk who makes fun of me for this -- but I still turn into an ole' blubber-face every time I even read a reference to Snape's "After all this time? / Always" scene.

That may be why, to this day, I grow immensely irritated when I hear someone explain -- however reasonably -- their dissatisfaction with the HP books. This is certainly a peculiar reaction for me, as no other book I admire causes that sort of reaction (not even the book I wrote my dissertation on!). But there it is. I'm just a HP partisan.

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