By Wesley Hutchins
Word Count: 1989
Summary: The retrospective of a reluctant fan.
It has been twenty years since the first Harry Potter book was published, and though I only got into it three years later, the extraordinary Harry Potter books and films have been a significant part of my life for almost two decades, and it’s a bit of an understatement to say that I don’t know where I would be without them and their immeasurable literary and cinematic value.
For me, it all started on the first day back to school in the new millennium following the Christmas break in the old one. At the age of nine and in the fourth grade, I was in a combined fourth-through-sixth grade class under our teacher, Mrs. Ann, and during that first day back, she gathered us around for a book reading. To this day, I cannot remember if we had any previous such reading in class, or during any other part of that year. If memory serves, I believe that we students chose grade-appropriate books to read throughout the year and were tested on them via a program called Accelerated Reader, so it may well be that this experience was exceptional. Whatever the circumstances, we pulled our chairs up around her and she announced that she would be reading a book entitled Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Philosopher’s Stone in the United Kingdom).
Upon hearing the title and looking at the cover, I felt underwhelmed and probably rolled my eyes, because I wasn’t really interested in fantasy and fiction, and this sounded like the worst kind. “Harry Potter” sounded like something from out of a fairy tale; it smacked of being too whimsical and not grounded in reality. Perhaps this harsh assessment was also due to me being heavily interested in history, reference, and other factually-based books, especially ones about ocean liners, and particularly the Titanic. Probably the only fiction that I liked were ones attached in some way to a historical narrative or otherwise grounded in some reality, such as the American Girl series and Huckleberry Finn. Almost every day, I brought in such books, which I preferred to read during lunch and whatever free time I may have had. Now, here I was, about to go through a book which in some way, I felt was beneath me.
Nevertheless, I sat in my chair and listened as best I could, because we had to take notes. I believe that the first three chapters were read that day and it was such a bore. Thankfully, I did not fall asleep, but I remember that I struggled to get into the book, and then again, maybe it was me resenting having to go through with this exercise. Perhaps it was both boredom and being resentful to the point of just not paying attention. I heard Mrs. Ann speaking words as she read through the narrative, but it just wasn’t leaving enough of an impression on me, for whatever reason.
Regardless of what that reason was, I found myself with little in the way of notes or a good memory of what had been read to us, and now I had to write a summary for homework due the next day. Oops.
That evening, my mom – who had a similar reaction to the book – and I went to Books-A-Million to purchase a copy of the book, and I took time to read it for myself and at my own pace, in order to do my homework. Mom helped me get through that assignment, showing me how to identify and extract key moments, so that I wasn’t just rewriting the book almost word for word. It was a tough night, but the summary got done and I could sleep well.
The next day, I brought my copy of the book into class, along with that wretched homework assignment. To help stay focused so I would have an easier time doing what would likely be another summary, I read along with the teacher, but even then, it still felt forced – like pulling teeth – as I struggled to picture and make sense of what was going on.
Then, at some point, I started to catch on to the book. Where that point was, I cannot remember, and indeed, it may have been a gradual process which took place as I came to understand that this was not an excessively fairy-dusted and whimsical fantasy. I started to appreciate that this was becoming an interesting and exciting adventure story featuring an orphaned boy who was the same age as I and was finding himself in a magical world he had hitherto not known, and attending a school for studying magic. Furthermore, I believe I was also drawn to the book because of how, despite being in a medieval castle and in a world seemingly hung over from the 19th Century at the latest, it was set in our time and had a modern and relatively realistic feel to it, which likely had to do with the coexistence of, and relationship between the magical and non-magical (Muggle) worlds. In addition, the young characters were very much like most of us Muggles, encountering and experiencing the same things as we do – homework assignments, tough teachers (looking at you, Snape), making friends (and enemies), playing sports (albeit not on broomsticks in the air), having crushes and going out on dates, and so much more – which did not have magical solutions, at least not easy ones, just like there was no magical solution for getting through that first reading and summary.
As best as I can remember, we spent around two weeks reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and as we progressed, the homework assignments became less arduous and increasingly effortless. If anything, I was becoming more engaged with the story to the point that the summary writing became trivial and I even went ahead of the class with what I read at home. By the time we had finished the book, I had really grown to like it, and though I cannot now remember if we had an Accelerated Reader test or full-scale book report on it, I would like to believe that I aced one or the other.
While reading Sorcerer’s Stone, we understood that it was part of a series, and soon afterward my parents purchased the other two books available at that time – Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – and I read them in a matter of weeks. In fact, instead of bringing in my Titanic books, I was bringing the HP books to school for reading, even though they were not required reading like the first one. Upon finishing them, I was hooked on Harry Potter and eagerly anticipated the release of the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire over that summer, and by then there was talk about the first book being adapted into a film.
However, I only appreciated just how big and how much of a global phenomenon Harry Potter had become when Goblet of Fire was released on July 8, 2000. Leading up to it, we asked our local Barnes and Noble if they would be carrying it and they said that they would, and further recommended that we go ahead and buy it ahead of time so it would be reserved and we could just pick it up on the big day. It was a good thing we did, because on the eve of the release, we saw other kids (some in wizarding costume) on the news with their parents lined up inside and outside of the book stores in our city and in cities across the world, ready to get their hands on the new book because these stores were staying open for special midnight releases.
As planned, we picked it up later during the daytime, and I began reading almost immediately. With it being so large, it took me about a month to read – whilst recording my readings aloud on tape for future reference – and when I had finished, I was ready for the next thing, which would be the film adaptation of Sorcerer’s Stone.
The result was that my interest in Harry Potter had well and truly kicked off. Over the next several years, there would be the release of the remaining books, which collectively became the bestselling book series of all time, with over 500 million copies sold. They were followed by the corresponding films, which were beautifully made and cinematically pleasing to the eye, and went on to become the second highest grossing film series of all time. There has also been the merchandizing – including toys, apparel, memorabilia, video games, and other items (of which I have had a watch, socks, scarves, film soundtracks, video games, books, and calendars). In the age of the Internet and social media, there was an explosion of HP-oriented websites, forums, message boards, fan fiction, and much more for those of us who wanted more and couldn’t just sit and wait for the next books and films. Indeed, I feel privileged to be of the generation which knew what it was like to wait for each book and film, so that we all “grew up” with Harry, the other characters, and the actors who portrayed them over the years.
Therefore, I am thankful to have had a part in all this, along with hundreds of millions of others as it unfolded from the mind of J.K. Rowling, who has become inarguably one of the greatest authors of all time. While waiting between the fourth book and the first film, I learned about her and how she fell on hard times as a single mother living on welfare while writing the first book, and I became enlightened and inspired by how she overcame all of that to share the story and the world she had created. Indeed, it was Rowling’s engaging writing which made the series successful, along with themes such as the struggle between good and evil, coming of age, friendship and adversity, dealing with political corruption, facing Nazi-like supremacist ideologies and prejudice against others, along with elements of fantasy, mystery, adventure, and romance.
Also appealing was the British setting of the books and the British cultural elements, with the books and films presenting a view of life in modern Britain, especially with regard to the diversity of the British population via the Home Nations – England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland (and with Hogwarts students and Ministry officials hailing from the Republic of Ireland) – and the UK’s various minority ethnic groups descended from throughout the Commonwealth and beyond, which was a bit of an eye-opener. There were also elements of the culture surrounding pubs, sports (in the form of Quidditch), and of course, school life – including the rivalries between students and the houses into which they belonged. The result was that Harry Potter contributed to my interest in the UK alongside the Titanic and other ships, and I have been heavily interested in the culture, society, history, and politics of the United Kingdom since then.
On a more personal level, I am thankful for JK Rowling and her books, which helped me to become a better reader and to appreciate reading more than just nonfiction history and reference books. Fiction is still not my favorite genre, but when possible, I do enjoy a novel from time to time so that I have had more and varied reading experiences over the years. However, to the present, the Harry Potter series and most of what spawned from them remain my favorites after all these years, from that day in January over seventeen years ago, and I look forward to hopefully passing them down to children of my own.