Saturday, September 30, 2017

Books that Shaped Me, Part 8: The Harry Potter Series, by J. K. Rowling

We were sure to come here eventually, since I’m a longtime fantasy reader who was a child at the end of the twentieth century. I believe it is my greatest piece of fantasy-hipster cred that I first read (technically had read to me) a British copy of the correctly titled Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (which looked very grown-up with its black and white photograph of an oncoming train on the cover) some months before the re-titled book was released in the United States. A friend of the family who visited from England knew we all loved fantasy and that I was the right age for such a thing and brought it as a gift when she visited us, before it had become apparent quite how much of thing Harry Potter was going to be on either side of the Atlantic.

Harry Potter and Philosopher’s Stone is, of course, very good, and that fact did not elude me or my parents as we read it for the first time. I read it myself more than once before the second book appeared, and I continued to read each entry eagerly when they came out. I wasn’t as deep into the world of Harry Potter as it was possible to be, but neither did I only dip a toe into those waters. I never attended a midnight release, or indeed any kind of release event at a bookstore. I certainly caused wands to be fabricated for my own use, but no robes or other wizardly paraphernalia from that particular universe appeared in our house or my games. (I had a lot of time for games of imagination as a child, especially when I was still home-schooled and had lonely hours to fill with nothing but a back yard and an ever growing collection of wood and plastic weaponry.)

I devoured each of the books, the first several, at least, in a day or two when it arrived. I enjoyed them, and also, at that time, voraciously reading the new Harry Potter book was an important way of performing the kind of nerd identity that I was most comfortable in. By reading them, I made public my attachment to fantasy in a way everyone else, especially other children, could recognize and accept. (I did not think of it in that way then, but I have been to college since and become far more pretentious.) Even as a read them, there were always things I disliked, the cringe-inducing awkwardness of so many of Harry’s interactions with adults, the painful stupidity of some of his choices. The opening of book 2, I remember, was particularly off-putting for me. None of this was enough push me away from the series, and I read the first four books more times than I can easily count, relishing each one, until I had more-or-less memorized each beat, and many of the individual sentences.

Book 5, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, was where my relationship with the series began to change. I am given to understand that this is a relatively common experience. (That weight was long, wasn’t it?) I’m sure I read Order of the Phoenix more than once, but I don’t really remember it nearly as well as the first four. I’m not certain I read either of the last two books more than once. I had aged faster than the writing, and as I aged, I had read more and more other genre fiction books, which threw the weaknesses of Harry Potter into sharper relief. The added grimness of the latter entries did not really help with the problem of adolescence that broke my immersion in the world, it just made me enjoy reading the books less. They’re long books to spend a lot of the story arc sad.

I loved the Harry Potter books for a long time, and I enjoyed reading and talking about them, but I was only briefly a fan. When the little charity pamphlets about magical beast and the history of Quidditch gave a glimpse of the larger wizarding world, my imagination games featured a good deal of Harry Potter derived material for a while, but it didn’t go much farther than that. The real problem is that the way I enjoyed my books outside of reading them, the way I performed enjoyment of them for others, was to talk about them. Specifically, to analyze them, and Harry Potter doesn’t stand up to the deconstruction, as even its fans know. There are too many large holes in the logic of the world for it to keep its shine through deep analysis, and that gets added to the list of reasons I lost my deep love for the series. The biggest reason, though, was the end. I absolutely hate the rug-pull of Harry’s resurrection at the close. For me, it cheapened the sacrifice and left a sour taste.

If I was not really a diehard fan of Harry Potter as a child, I certainly am not one now. The books live in my memory, and the sheer number of times I read the first half of the series earns them a place in this blog series, but the greatest long-lasting impact of them on me and my reading was probably the reaction against them at the end, it’s certainly a big part of what created my current wariness of young-adult fiction and my tendency to pivot into things that are unequivocally ‘serious’ and ‘adult’ for my reading material. Thought, if you have some time, I do have some moderately detailed notes on how the series could be completely re-written to solve a lot of problems and improve the depth of the world building. … …Call me?

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