Sunday, December 14, 2008

Why Do I Like Harry Potter?

[warning: disjointed, half-baked thoughts to follow.]

So I’m doing this thing where I’ve decided to reread the entire Potter series from start to finish. I haven’t revisited them since Deathly Hallows came out, and after reading first Harry, a History and then Beedle the Bard, it just seemed like it was time to go back to Hogwarts.

And as I’m reading, I’m starting to wonder… why is it, again, that I like these books so much?

When I ask it, it’s not in a disgusted, “Why do I like these? Ugh!” kind of way. It’s just idle curiosity. To be frank, they really don’t suit my current tastes. I’m all about John Green and Maureen Johnson: relevant tales for teens with witty dialogue and a slightly funnier, but still very believable, reality. And sure, Ron gets off a really great line every now and then, but to be perfectly honest, I’m kind of rushing through the beginning. I’ve just started Prisoner of Azkaban, and a part of me was tapping my foot (… I suppose my foot was, huh?) all through SS and CoS, just wanting to get to Order of the Phoenix when we see real danger, real hormones and real emotion. Raised stakes.

I may return to this when I’ve gotten to it in my reread process, but this is just something I have to say: Half-Blood Prince was a very frustrating book for me. Such a big part of it was teenaged drama, just classic high school stuff, and I loved that—it would have been extremely bad form to pretend as though 16 year olds act any other way. But I felt as though Jo could have handled it much better. As a staunch believer in Harry/Ginny, I was obviously gratified to see that relationship come to fruition, but the way it happened made me want to punch things and pull teeth. There’s a logical build-up of interest on Harry’s side: the wonderful exchanges in OotP that made Ginny my favorite character, their shared experiences at the Burrow, him missing her when she’s gone—but then, when the time comes and the monster in his chest rears its ugly head, it’s all “Ginny’s so pretty.” Well, YES, Harry, we know. But she’s also fierce and funny and why the hell don’t you ever talk about that? Jo is known for her subtlety, but the telling-not-showing here really baffled me, left a bad taste in my mouth. And once the two of them have their several sunlit days? Their relationship is mentioned about three times in passing. I treasure that moment in the Common Room where they discuss tattoos; it’s the closest to typical YA the series ever gets. And obviously this was her first go, and the Pensieve and the Lightning-Struck Tower and the typical Rowling mind-blowing amazingness was present and accounted for.


It’s hard for me to talk about this. I don’t want to sound as though I’m insulting Jo or Potter or… I’m not. I’m really not. The thing that makes Harry Potter such a satisfying experience is the richness of the world—knowing that it’s not real, yet being unable to shake the feeling that it could be real. The government is a government, the school is a school and the people are people.

And maybe that’s it. Maybe Harry, Ron and Hermione were too busy being people to be teenagers. They had their angst (GOD, did Ron and Hermione have angst) but it just didn’t seem to have the right vibe.

I don’t know. There are no pull-quote punctums (punctia?) in Potter. All the rightnesses are slow and amorphous and spring from depth of character. Potter is a plot-driven series. It has strong themes, yes—good versus evil and the power of love—but aside from a few wonderful Dumbledore quotations, there’s very little one can just grab and show off as a token of what they’ve learned and how they’ve grown. The narrative does not go on thematic, idea-driven tangents. And I miss that. I love Jo’s quirky, tongue-in-cheek style, and I just wish that there were… more of it.

I suppose one could argue that I like Potter because I’ve always liked Potter, but that doesn’t seem right, either. I don’t pop in my Star Wars DVDs whenever I get depressed, and I was a fan of George Lucas younger and (possibly) harder than I was for Jo. There is—or rather, was—a great comfort in slipping into the world of Potter that I just can’t seem to get back any more.

And most of all, I miss the wondering.

This is the first time I’m starting at the beginning from a perspective of a truly closed canon. I read through all of them one last time after DH came out (“Oh my god, they learned about dittany for their very first final exams!”) but at the time, everything was still nebulous and swirling in my brain. I hadn’t gone to Prophecy yet, hadn’t sat down and truly examined all there was to examine… but I have now. And the mystery is gone.

And the more I think about it, the more I realize just how much the mystery really meant.

Harry Potter was more than just something to read. It was more, even, than an experience. It was an event in my life. It was what I lived and breathed and dreamt. And it was, at the time, just as open-ended as my own day-to-day was. Reading the series again now isn’t like rereading any other book, because I’m not reading it—I can’t read it—like I would anything else. I can’t dissect her style or choices, like I can every time I go back and read Looking For Alaska over again. All I can do is try and feel like I did then; it’s like going through an old photo album. I can forgive everything I find lacking, smile at all my favorite bits when I get to them, just as I can look back and examine my own adolescence.

But nostalgia just isn’t as fun as being there, and I can’t find a way to go back.


  1. This is probably the most depressing thing I've ever read.
    I agree with you about Harry/Ginny in HBP. But the rest...
    I have more to say. But this is just a comment, and you're studying for finals, and I have an essay to write.

    I kind of feel like this needs a blog response. Maybe.

    (This comment sounds mean. I really don't mean to be! I love you.)

  2. You're reading the series with different eyes than you once were. I don't think it's about outgrowing the books, I think it's about how you read them. At this point in life, you're especially interested in adolescent interactions and interpersonal relationships. You've been reading those types of books and that's what your mind is conditioned to expect.

    The truth is that Harry Potter is an epic. It's not meant to focus on those types of relationships in the same way a John Green or Maureen Johnson novel focuses on them. The reason they're appealing in my opinion is that they speak to our collective unconscious. They deal with these immensely huge human themes with which we can all connect. The stories reflect the real world, but also allow us to escape to some place completely different.

    And you're right, you can never go back and read Harry again for the first time, but for me that's magical in and of itself. The fact that I love rereading the books and finding new little tidbits or things to analyze is one of the things I love most about Jo's writing. In fact, it's the thing I love about all of my favorite authors from John Green to James Joyce to Jane Austen. (The fact that the majority of my favorite writers have "J" names is a topic for a blog post all its own.)

    Like Marlena, I have a lot more to say about this, but I'll stop now.