This is the (long overdue) second installment in my “The Books that Built Me” series. Read my first post on The Things They Carried here.
I was twelve years old, and my sister Emily had sent me an Easter present.
It was a book.
Being that I am me and this is a book blog, you might be surprised to hear my reaction was not unlike the grandson’s in The Princess Bride when he opens his grandfather’s gift:
However, this had less to do with the gift being a book than that it was a book I’d seen before in the hands of the kid who had, of late, taken to roaming the halls of school in a cloak, a lighting bolt drawn on his forehead in ballpoint pen. He was also the kid who made his own armor and got up in English class to recite “Jabberwocky” from memory, in its entirety, just for fun.
In hindsight, this kid was awesome. At the time though, he was weird, and any book he liked enough to cosplay was probably weird too.
I’m not a total monster, though; I couldn’t have a new book in my possession and NOT read it for long.
So despite my initial reticence, it was only a few hours later that I found myself stretched out on the carpet in my bedroom reading the first page of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”
What a lovely beginning.
From that first line, I was utterly enchanted. I read Sorcerer’s Stone cover to cover and then went back and read it again. I remember checking out the second and third books from the library later that week (the only others out in the series at that point) and devouring those too. Over the next ten years or so, Rowling couldn’t write fast enough; I was hooked.
So what was it about this story that spoke to me at twelve and continues to speak to me, eighteen years later, at thirty?
At its most basic level, Rowling’s seven book series is a school story. Yes, Harry’s world is a fantastic setting and it’s filled with fantastic things—dragons and goblins and house elves who long for freedom and festive socks. Yes, he and Ron and Hermione go to school in a castle where they take notes with quills on parchment as they sit through classes on Potions and Transfiguration and have their mail delivered by owl.
Despite all that, at twelve, Harry’s problems were a lot like my problems: dealing with bullies and mean teachers, figuring out how to make friends, still having to do homework when you felt like your world was ending.
Sidebar: Middle school is rough, y’all.
But even as an adult, it continues to resonate. In Harry Potter, we find the extraordinary in ordinary moments. Some of the scenes I remember most vividly are the ones in which Harry faces off with the Mirror of Erised. Our orphaned boy, so long unloved, gazes into the mirror and sees himself united with his parents for the first time, sees himself as part of family that loves him.
It’s an intoxicating sight, and one Harry returns to again and again, staring into the mirror’s depths, until he is gently reprimanded by Albus Dumbledore: “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that.”
The dreams on which I tend to dwell may have changed a bit since I was a tween, but the significance of Dumbledore’s message hasn’t dimmed as I’ve entered adulthood. After all, who among us hasn’t suffered a loss? Who among us can’t identify with Harry’s desire for more or with his struggles to belong? Grappled with might-have-beens and if-onlys?
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve reread the Harry Potter series over the years. My copy of Prisoner Azkaban has broken totally in half along the spine (it’s my favorite). I started a new tradition the summer of 2016 and listen to Jim Dale’s magical narration of the entire series on Audible from about May to July—all 118 hours and 38 minutes of it. Over the years, Harry and his friends have nestled into my bones and have become part of me.
I wrote about my love affair with Harry Potter in a post on another blog several years ago, right around the time the final movie was released. Here’s what twenty-four year old me had to say:
I don’t love Harry Potter just because I love to read, or because there are spells and magical creatures, or because any time a new book or movie is released, I have an excuse to play dress-up (though that is a definite plus). I love it because in those hours I spend with Harry, I find myself completely immersed in a world that is my own and not my own, with characters that have become as familiar to me as old friends. Over the past twelve years, The Boy Who Lived has taught me valuable lessons about friendship, truth and goodness; that what is right isn’t always necessarily what is easy, that it’s not about what you can do, but what you choose to do with your life that matters, and that one should make love, not horcruxes.
The act of reading itself is its own kind of magic; a peculiar kind of alchemy of words and the imaginations of both author and reader that, when combined, spark something marvelous and entirely new.
A book on a shelf is a dead thing. A book in our hands is alive. In the reading, we breathe life into paper and ink, and stories and characters become real to us in a way that never ceases to amaze me.
The Boy Who Lives lives on in us, because of us.
“No story lives unless someone wants to listen. The stories we love best do live in us forever. So whether you come back by page or by the big screen, Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home.”
-J. K. Rowling
Whenever I return to Hogwarts, I get to spend a few hours in a world both familiar and fantastic. I can soak up the wisdom of Albus Dumbledore, travel the globe by Floo Powder, broomstick, or side-along apparition, be a hero and triumph against insurmountable odds. And isn’t that why we love stories?