I’m reading Harry Potter for the first time in my life. I’m 28. I’m not exactly okay with this. After more than a decade of scoffing at its success, refusing to acknowledge it as a major cultural phenomenon, and, frankly, thinking myself above its quaint story arc, I’ve given in. I thought this day would never come. I was comfortably settled into the idea that I would never read one of the most popular book series of my generation. I grew up on The Chronicles of Narnia, The Tripod Trilogy, even Goosebumps. I knew a good fantasy book when I saw it–and this was not it.
But over the last couple of months, I’ve been getting a lot of pressure. Bullied might be more accurate. Everyone in my department at work has read the books cover to cover and is obsessed. Already being the odd man out in the group, I saw an opportunity to extend a holly branch, spend some time on their side of the street. After several weeks of delicately making excuses as to why I wouldn’t read Harry Potter, I caved. I picked up Book One at a used book store for a dollar. My co-workers were thrilled. Having earned a master’s in English literature less than a year ago, I was struggling with a minor identity crisis. Forgoing Marquez for Rowling? What have I become?
I’ve everything but the final chapter, and I’m glad I did it. It’s a great book. The characters are fun. The plot moves along at a refreshing clip. The puzzles and mysteries are genuinely engaging. And, what’s more, I now understand why people are so rapt. I can understand the obsession, the religious devotion to the author and her franchise. It’s the same reason why Star Wars is so compelling or why comic books will always be popular. What Rowling has done is created a total and self-contained universe that is similar enough to our own to be warmly familiar, but divergent enough to tap into the imaginative spirit of adolescence. So with the class critique, political intrigue, and issues of family, loss, and redemption, we can read about ourselves, but from a distance safe enough that shields us from our own guilt and anxiety about how these forces operate in our own lives.
This is not to say Rowling’s delivery is as profound as her message, however. We are, after all, plainly in the realm of young adult fiction. In the first book, it seems, there is a pure Manichean divide between good and evil. The snobbish, entitled house of Slytherin is home to the black-haired, onyx-eyed Professor Snape, and the Aryan yuppy Draco Malfoy–all hard consonants and sibilance. While the heroic House of Griffyndor seems to cull together all of the likely working-class saviors: the kind-hearted, righteous types like Harry and Ron Weasley, whose prosaic names clearly signal with whom the readers should identify. And then there’s the precocious, obsequious Hermonie Granger, with whom, because the narrative is focalized through Harry, we are meant to be smitten.
Aside from heavily regulating our emotional allegiance with the characters, Rowling perhaps also draws a little too heavily from the Chekovian gun formula. Like a slowly developing RPG character, Potter goes along picking up seemingly random items, only to discover later that they are essential to some battle or puzzle. To the adult reader, this is all very obvious. Every piece fits together neatly and all missions go off without a hitch. But as an adult reader, just once I’d like things to go off the rails for the slightly obnoxious Potter. Oh, you threw away that wooden flute Hagrid made you? Well, tough shit. You needed it to defend yourself against the bewitched killer candlestick in level 3, so now you’re dead.
Of course, the books weren’t written for me or my aging snark. They were written for kids. And for kids, it’s important that stories come together. It teaches them a grand narrative about perseverance and success that, however untrue it may be, is necessary to their riding out high school and, if possible, college so that they can have some hope at becoming something. But for a marginally jaded 20-something like me, reading these books is like watching the Disney Channel. I can appreciate what it is and respect the craftmenship, but if I spend too much time looking at it, I start to feel like a creep.
And this feeling is exactly why I’ve put off reading the book for so long. It’s why my wife rolls her eyes when I scoop it off my nightstand and turn on my reading light when getting into bed. It’s why I needed a stand-in text (Love in the Time of Cholera) to take with me when leaving the house because I couldn’t bear being seen with Potter in public.
I have one final chapter to read and I’m genuinely interested to learn how everything is resolved. But I don’t think I’ll be compulsively ordering the next six books from Amazon afterward or visiting Harry Potter World in Florida. I’m more interested in getting on with Marquez, and Foster Wallace, and Rushdie. Perhaps what’s most important is not being profoundly Potter literate, but merely conversant. After all, it’s a cultural sign from my generation that I should be able to identify. And it may even help me get along at work.
Postscript: And because I can’t resist, here’s a perfectly irreverent piece from Slate on the Harry Potter phenomenon by two equally ignorant Potter virgins with whom I can identify: