It has been a woefully long time since I’ve posted here. Suffice it to say that between my seven month old baby, my insanely busy summer break, my music habit, and losing 80 lbs (!), my capacity for committing nerdly thought to words has been limited. However, things are settling. The school year is back on, and I’m falling into patterns and rhythms again.
As I announced to my friends on Facebook, I’ve decided to read through the Harry Potter books. Despite being the perfect age for them when they came out, I was incredibly resistant to the series as a youngster. However, my wife is a fan, and we plan to read them to our baby. I want to convert to fandom for the same reason parents sometimes convert to religions when they have kids– to present a united front. With the routine of the school year coming together, I have managed to squeeze out enough time to knock out the first two, and I kind of want to kick myself for my earlier reluctance.
Before I begin, I feel it worth mentioning that I am very aware of my outsider status. I have seen (most of) the movies, but many aspects of the series have remained mysterious to me, or have been lost to the years since I saw the films last. Some spoilers I know, but there are enough secrets to feel like I’m seeing it through fresh eyes. And yet, bringing up these fresh experiences with experienced fans is a bit daunting. As a fundamentally social person, I want to share my experiences but feel self conscious talking about reading the books for the first time. I’m acutely aware that all of my opinions, hypotheses, and judgements are falling on ears of those inundated with the series since childhood. Their opinions on it are informed by decades of thinking about the complete narrative, much as mine are for other fandoms. I haven’t found others to be condescending, but I am so used to being the one with the great big beard, it’s actually a little uncomfortable to be so green on a subject.
Despite these feelings, I’ve had some initial judgments to share. Ultimately, I think I’ve loved these first two books. I say “I think” because I’ve had to re-evaluate my critical approach to stories a bit lately (perhaps another reason why now is the time to get into the series). Once upon a time, I demanded absolute perfection from a narrative. Plot holes had to be miniscule or non existent. Dialogue and narration had to be natural, free of cliche, and understated. But with those expectations, came the inevitable fact that many of my own most beloved tales can’t measure up. Take Star Wars, for instance. Star Wars is probably nearer and dearer to me than any other lore. And yet, I can’t deny its imperfection. Even Empire, my favorite in the series, is built around a giant plot hole involving either a surprisingly short training regiment for the Jedi, or an absurdly long time spent floating among space junk. If even the crown jewel of that series doesn’t really stand up to the level of expectation I had for stories, a level of expectation that it partially created by impressing upon me its finer qualities in my formative years, then I have to admit that I am rigged to reject stories. Reading books and watching films becomes not so much a process of enjoyment, but one of scrutiny. In doing, I am denying myself the social experience of loving those stories because I demand they meet unattainable standards. Thus, I have committed to taking in this series as a blank slate. I have resolved not to pass judgement on its quality until it is entirely over, and I have agreed to myself that I will allow for flaws that I recognize as an adult, which might have been overlooked as a kid.
Surely, J.K. Rowling was not an amazing writer in her earliest Potter years. I cringed a bit when, in both stories, the climaxes consisted mainly of the villain fully explaining their complete master plan to our protagonist, who was surely soon to meet his demise. But her early books were fun, whimsical, and uniquely captivating. At the same time, I was surprised to find that many of her characters are beautifully flawed, and unexpectedly three dimensional to the adult reader, even when viewed through Harry’s limited perspective. I find the psychology of the adults in the tales particularly interesting (cough* Gilderoy Lockhart anybody?). This, I’m sure, is to be expected, being a teacher myself, and able to relate more readily to McGonagall’s day to day life than Ron’s. I actually found it quite funny how relatable teaching at Hogwarts seemed to be. It got at a universal truth that served as a grounding for me when I wanted most to question the stories’ value. Even wizard children are, first and foremost, kids. The series, with all of its fantasy and occasional absurdity and squeaks, is a commentary on that age. Kids try more than anyone to make a meaningful impact on their world, as illustrated by Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s constant meddling into affairs deemed by the adults to be beyond the scope of their power.
The first books also carve out an interestingly consistent meld of genres. Start with a base equal parts fantasy and mystery, sprinkle in trace amounts of horror (more for Chamber than Sorcerer’s Stone, but notable amounts in both). It takes a considerable amount of artistry to make satisfying, and yet different enough stories out of the same materials, but Rowling does it. They aren’t perfect, but then again, I had decided that perfection isn’t worth the effort. Rowling shows talent despite her flaws.
Enjoyment of the series aside, there is a tiny part of me that feels like an imposter in this endeavor. I lack the nostalgia that is key for any burning fandom. My appreciation is adopted, rather than an intrinsic part of my makeup. I think among fans, there is an expectation that in order to call yourself a true fan of something, it has to reach down into your very being. You have to have been molded by the art in some way fundamental to your identity. This, of course, essentially means that there is a window to become a true fan of anything. Once your formative years have passed, you are welcome into fandoms as a tourist, but not a native. Considering this, I would that I had given the Harry Potter series, flaws and all, a fairer shake when I was younger. This ride is ultimately enjoyable so far, and I look forward to getting on with the rest of the series.
Having completed what I’m told is the “childhood Potter,” I plan to take a short break, as I do with all series. I’ll be back with more when I dive into a few of the adolescent works. Hit me up in the comments.