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Why grown-up muggles should read 'Harry Potter'

David Busis | NYT |  Jun 27, 2017 11:42 AM IST
(Photo: Reuters)
I started reading the “Harry Potter” series, which turned 20 on Monday, in a dormitory in Hod HaSharon, Israel, alongside about two dozen other teenage muggles who had flown (by plane) from the United States. I’d completely succumbed to Potter hysteria at a friend’s urging even before I’d read the books, so the night before I left, I hadn’t hesitated to make room for the first four of them, all in hardback, by tossing out an extra pair of pants. Who needed pants? I wanted a good story.

Time on that trip had the magical quality of a “Harry Potter” camping tent: It was bigger on the inside than the outside. The two months flew by, but each day seemed endless, with hours enough to form close friendships and fall in love for the first time. After each packed day, while my best friend performed late-night mitzvahs for the girl I pined for, I consoled myself with my own affair, throwing myself at each of the first four “Harry Potter” books in turn. Alone in the common room with Harry and Ron and Hermione, I was as happy as I’ve ever been.

This feeling of consuming a book while simultaneously being consumed was not itself new. I grew up as an under-the-covers, flashlight-holding binge-reader. What was new was the intensity of my obsession, and the feeling of pining for a book that hadn’t been written yet. That trip was in 2001, when I was a junior in high school. I had to wait two long years for the next in J.K. Rowling’s series. I began in the Barnes & Noble where I purchased it, continued as I was walking home, and finished about 8 hours later in my apartment.

Being a “Harry Potter” fan in the early- to mid-2000s mostly consisted of fantasizing about each new installment of the fantasy. I never stood in a midnight line for the books like many fellow fans because I knew a spell for time-traveling into the next day: going to sleep. In 2003, 2005 and 2007 — in Chicago, in Alaska and in Otisfield, Maine — I picked up my copy of the book the morning after it was released, then spent the entire day reading it in a couple long gulps.

These memories might have something to do with why I — an arguably well-adjusted adult — recently cried as I reread the last book in the series, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.” The scene that got me came near the end, before the climax. Harry had just returned to the Room of Requirement to find an army of his peers — all the people we’d gotten to know in the course of seven books and 20 years — prepared to risk their lives and help him. I had the feeling that I too was reuniting with old friends, yet there was more to my reaction than nostalgia. The reappearance of so many minor characters made me appreciate the scope of Ms. Rowling’s achievement, the chiseled and fastidiously arranged stones which form the series’s vast arc.

It’s hard to write or talk about “Harry Potter” as an adult without thinking of Ruth Graham’s 2014 Slate op-ed, “Against YA,” which argues that adults should be embarrassed to read literature for teenagers. YA stands for “Young Adult.” Adults, by implication, should stick to AA: Adult Adult. Baked into Ms. Graham’s argument — and the argument of many critics who rallied to her banner — is a false dilemma, an assumption that time spent reading “Harry Potter” is time that might otherwise be spent reading, say, “Portrait of a Lady.” I can’t speak for everyone, but I myself have never come home from work and said, “How shall I while away these next hours — with Rowling or with James?” If I do choose to pick up Rowling, or Phillip Pullman, or Rainbow Rowell, it probably comes at the cost of Netflix, not nineteenth-century literature.

Ms. Graham and the critics who agree with her aren’t Puritans; they don’t believe that literature ought to instruct and improve us. On the contrary, they tend to rely on the concept of pleasure. The core sentiment is approximately this: “It’s weird that adults find YA so enjoyable. Those books are so basic.”

But having matured as I waited for each installment of the book — I was 17 when I started the series in 2001, 23 when I finished it in 2007 — I saw how the books matured too. Not only did the series become darker, it became more interesting. Yes, “Harry Potter” is about the life of a young wizard and his friends. But it’s also about the wish to be special — and the fear of being ordinary.

Voldemort, the villain of the series, fears death (his minions are called “Death Eaters”) because death is the great leveler, eating eminent wizards and poor muggles alike. (In the words of Hamlet, “Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service — two dishes, but to one table.”) By the end of the series, it’s not just Harry who has to grow up and accept hard truths, but his nemesis.
Like many readers, I was drawn to the books because they tapped into my fantasy of being special, but they teach us about the inescapability of the ordinary. Ultimately, though, I don’t read J.K. Rowling — or M.T. Anderson, or Ursula K. Leguin — because of what their books have to tell me about life. I read them because these writers have mastered the ancient magic of storytelling, and because they remind me of what it’s like to be young, living in a world that seems both simple and incomprehensible. Childhood taught us that wonder is our only true defense against the ordinary. We forget that at our peril.

David Busis lives in Brooklyn. He is at work on his first young adult novel.
©2017 The New York Times News Service

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