In Let’s Talk About… I take a rambling look at a piece of media that was/is/will be important to me.
Like many others of my generation, I first stumbled upon Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone when I was a bit younger Harry in that first book. My family was on a trip to Toronto, and we were hanging out at a large bookstore. I was looking for something to read on the way home, and my mom picked up Harry Potter, mentioning that she heard about it on tv somewhere. Little did I know, I was grabbing the first UK paperback edition of a book that would change my life.
I ate it up on the ride back. I don’t remember my exact first impressions, but I remember that I’d never enjoyed reading so much. I already read quite a bit at the time (I think I cranked through at least twenty books in the Pee Wee Scouts series at some point and I really liked the My Teacher is an Alien series), but Harry Potter felt like something brilliant – something completely new to me.
I remember standing in the laundry room as my mom was trying to fold some towels, me trying in vain to express just why the book was so great. I wanted to share it with somebody, anybody. Unfortunately, it was summer and nobody else I knew had read the books. I quickly read the second, then waited an agonizing two months waiting for the third to come back in the States. I cursed myself for not just getting the three-pack of the UK editions when I had the chance. I even picked up a copy of the renamed-for-dumb-Americans Sorcerer’s Stone edition, just in case there was something different in it that I might’ve missed out on.
After reading the third novel, I drifted away from the series. It exploded in popularity, and being the little insecure weirdo that I was, I decided I didn’t like it anymore. I was desperate to find something else to get that reading high though, and stumbled into the trippy Sci-Fi world of Dune before moving on to more literary pastures.
I didn’t come back to Harry Potter until my senior year of high school. By then I had become secure enough to actually let myself enjoy things, and with the last book coming out I felt it was time to catch back up. I purchased the rest of the books at the grocery store I worked at and cranked through them. I read as Harry transformed from a bratty kid to an angsty teenager, which was exactly what I was. It felt like a homecoming.
Reading the Deathly Hallows with My Chemical Romance’s The Black Parade blaring from my speaker system on loop was one of the more satisfying experiences of my teen years. When I finished the book, I felt like I was closing the door on a chapter in my life. In a very real way I was. It was the summer before college. I discovered a love of reading when I was the same age that Harry found acceptance at Hogwarts. The final book came out when I was leaving home for the first time, and Harry was leaving the magic castle that was his home.
Jump forward five years and I had graduated from college and was living in Chicago. I wanted to write a YA book, so I figured I’d revisit some of my old favorites. Harry Potter was an easy choice. I wasn’t prepared for the nostalgia that would flood through me. It wasn’t for my young days, or the first time I discovered reading, or Harry and his friends.
It was for the world before the internet.
I never saw it before then, but in a few short years, Harry Potter went from being a charming contemporary story to an ode to a bygone era. When I had last read the series, sitting in my room after a shift at the grocery store, smartphones didn’t exist, I still printed out Mapquest directions, and we had only recently upgraded to internet that wasn’t interrupted by a phone call. Everything had changed since. The idea of Hermione running to the library to look up some obscure fact felt quaint in a world where the entire sum of human knowledge sat in a smartphone shoved into your back pocket.
Harry Potter, or at least the original series, is the 90s, when we thought there were rules that we would be able to follow, when we thought the world still made sense. In Harry Potter world, the 90s ended with Voldemort defeated, but in America the enemy hit their mark and the world never recovered, slowly sliding from one bad situation to a worse one. Technology leapt forward, giving us all powers that wizards could only dream of, yet nothing improved. We never went to Hogwarts.
The next four years brings us to the present. I spent my time working tirelessly to read and teach myself to write better. I wrote several stories and novels of my own. I grew up. My first copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone sat in a honored place in my bookshelf, always there as a reminder of the wonder I had when I first read it.
Over the past few years, I thought a lot about old stories like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, where the heroes battled some source of ‘pure evil.’ It seemed like an increasingly strange idea. I was growing to appreciate the moral complexity of series like a Song of Ice and Fire and the Black Company (to use other fantasy examples) where everybody was some shade of bad, but real evil was often just a form of being ruthless. People were just acting in their own best interests, and even the worst of them had their reasons.
These ideas have recently failed me. Like the majority of the country in 2016, I watched with horror as a demagogue used racism to rise to power and eventually win the presidency. I was shattered when I watched the results roll in, chugging down every beer I had within reach because I simply couldn’t understand how this could happen. I watched, for the first time in my life, true evil take power. There was no other word for it. This wasn’t someone clumsily trying to do the right thing and failing. Here was a man who used evil means to gain power for power’s sake.
I remembered, then, something else that seemed old-fashioned when I last re-read Harry Potter. The rise of bureaucratic villains in Harry Potter, the secret and open fascists gaining power… it all felt very twentieth century. But here was exactly what I needed in 2016 and 2017. I returned to both Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings, because the world suddenly seemed a lot more black and white than I remembered.
I’ve only just finished the first three books again in the series. I’m still nowhere close to the second half of the books, the ones that really show fascists in power and the darkness almost winning. If anything, I’ve been surprised by how light and funny the first book is. Having struggled as a writer myself for several years, now I can truly appreciate how rich Rowling was able to make her world, and how fast she was able to do it. For all the grief Harry Potter received later in the series for being too long, the first book is incredibly tight and efficient in its storytelling.
Harry Potter taught me much over my young life, and was always there when I needed it. I have a feeling there’s still much more to learn as an adult living in the growing shadow.