Recently the world celebrated the 20th anniversary of the release of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. (Yes, it has a different title in the UK. No, I don’t care.) Obviously it’s been a huge literary success and a cultural bulldozer, and for good reason.
I, like many people, resisted the craze for a number of years. The mania hit my hometown of Henderson around 1999/2000. That’s when I noticed friends and family feverishly consuming the first three books, which were out at the time.
I couldn’t go anywhere without seeing someone reading these childish books about a magic kid who flew on a broom at wizard school and went to weird places called “Azkaban” or whatever. That sounded like a fake Middle Eastern place. I was more interested in reading Michael Crichton at the time, because I was a Grown Man.
My parents tried to persuade me to read them, to no avail. This was my “rebellious” phase. If my parents and sister liked it, it must be stupid, right? Then my Mamaw tried to persuade me, and I more kindly turned her down, because what kind of savage ingrate sasses his Mamaw? She even mentioned that my super-cool tough guy Uncle Paul thought they were great. Nevertheless, I resisted.
Two more books came out before I went on my mission in 2003. Near the end of my time in Spain (where the books were still everywhere), a family gifted me a copy of Harry Potter y la Orden del Fenix, because they knew I was collecting books in Spanish to read at home. (I had already acquired a complete set of The Lord of the Rings and Las Aventuras del Capitan Alatriste.)
As much as I wanted to hold on to my stubborn pride, I couldn’t rightly turn down this generous gift of a 900-page hardcover, so I accepted the book and didn’t tell them that I hadn’t yet read the previous four novels even in English. I went home, started reintegrating into American/English-speaking life, and dug into books again.
My then-girlfriend was, like most people, over the moon for Harry Potter, and her persuasion was the final nail in the coffin of my obstinate desire to resist this cultural wave. Like Wesley Crusher, I gave in and plugged into The Game.
After the first few chapters of Sorcerer’s Stone, I was intrigued. By the end of the book, I was quite impressed. Chamber of Secrets picked up the ball and kept running with it. Prisoner of Azkaban nuked the last shreds of my will, and I started to have dreams about being in the wizarding world, wielding a wand, casting spells and whatnot…
This was a new sensation for me. I never got into books like that. Dreams just didn’t happen, not even with books I was obsessed with. I killed the first six books in about a three-week span, and read the Spanish version of book five the following summer. Then began the long, drawn-out wait for Deathly Hallows, which would release on my 23rd birthday.
In the years since, I’ve re-read the whole series twice, and now my nephew is on his (third or fourth) trip through the books. For a kid who wasn’t even born until the seventh book had already come out, that goes to show their staying power.
But what is it about these books that makes them so magnetic? And can those parts persuade those who resist, as I once did?
- The Harry Potter books take something that young readers generally dislike–school–and make it impossibly cool. Any kid who hates getting up and going to school in the morning would gladly transfer to Hogwarts to learn magic. I think this is one reason why the series was so successful with an otherwise impenetrable demographic: young boys.
- Throughout the entire series, Rowling bowls you over with well-hidden twists. This, if nothing else, is a hallmark of the HP novels. While the villain reveal in book 1 might have been somewhat visible, the methodology of it was hidden well, and this trait continued throughout all seven books. Each of them had one huge twist–and several smaller ones along the way–that constituted a huge payoff for everything to come before it.
- The characters are quickly identifiable and convincingly real. If the school component makes the series accessible to young readers, the development of the adult characters is what makes it click for older readers. It’s a multi-generational series, with just as much weight for the parents and caretakers in the story as for the younger characters. While young readers identify with Harry’s displacement, Ron’s poverty, or Hermione’s nerdiness, older readers can relate to the burden on Professors Dumbeldore and McGonagle, the missed opportunities and stolen years of Sirius Black, or lifelong grudge held by Severus Snape.
- The world is a dangerous and heavy as it is cozy and inviting. Yes, there are dark wizards all over the place, and while the overtones of fascism, zealotry and ethnic purity can be all too real at times, they’re offset by the safe places in the book, like Hogwarts, the Burrow, Hogsmeade, and even #12 Grimmauld Place. This is why our world spends millions of dollars every year to go to Universal Studios and sit in a Harry Potter-themed restaurant, drinking butterbeer out of a keg and soaking in the ambiance. You’re transported there and it feels almost palpably real.
- Each new book dumps a fresh load of problems into your lap, as well as new places, new history, new conflicts, new magic, and new creatures. As a writer, I found this highly impressive, that a read-through of all seven books demonstrated Rowling’s mastery of her own world, and her ability to keep building on it in such a way that it stays clear and structured in the reader’s imagination. Over three thousand pages of fantasy fiction, and every spell, every scene, every interaction between these characters stays fresh in the mind, as if you had been there yourself to experience it.
Ultimately, I can’t twist anyone’s arm and make them read something they don’t want to. That’s not my aim. There are plenty of authors out there who are widely successful and enjoy the admiration of my peers, but I don’t particularly like their work or understand the hype. (Full confession: I don’t think Neil Gaiman’s books are all that great. I’ve started 6, finished 4, and liked 2. Granted, those two were brilliant, but the rest…I don’t get it.)
But, if any of the people who proudly celebrated #HP20 by announcing their longstanding resistance to it–and their decision to maintain that resistance–read this and finally decide to take a crack at it, well…hopefully they like it as much as I did. I’m glad I finally caved in the end.