Monday, 26 June 2017

Harry Potter Week: The Girl Who Read

When I turned 20 I was at university and I had an epic night out with a load of my flatmates. It was a typical university style night out and we all got super drunk. It was during the days when people still took digital cameras on nights out (yes I'm super old) and I took a shit ton of photos. It's safe to say, as the night progressed, things get less pretty and my eyelids droop ever lower. My 20th birthday was a fantastic night out but the next day I experienced my first, grown-up hangover. Literally the day I turned 20 my body stopped being able to just get up and go after a night out. I was dying. I'd never felt as old as I did that morning. I doubt Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone woke up this morning with a banging headache and feeling super nauseated but I bet it felt old. I mean I fucking do. The first Harry Potter series was released 20 years ago. I'm nearly 30 but it still feels like yesterday that I first read about the boy who lived.  How did this happen? Imagine if I had another night out like my 20th birthday... I probably would die at this point. Jeez.

I have a confession to make: I didn't read The Philosopher's Stone when it first came out. ARGH! I know. This probably makes me less of a Harry Potter fan than you. But it's fine. I actually got the book one year later, in 1998. My father bought me a copy of the first adult edition and I've never looked back. It was during the time that Harry Potter fever was infecting the nation and I vividly remember one of my teachers bemoaning the fact that I was jumping on the bandwagon. She was a massive bitch and I ignored her. Ultimately, I didn't care because I loved the book. I was 10 years old and I'd never read anything like it before. It had everything and I read it obsessively. I'd always been involved in reading as a child but it was my twin sister who would ingest books in a single sitting. This series turned that around. I wanted to read for fun and I wanted to read for long periods. It was the first time I remember not wanting to stop reading because I was desperate to see what happened.

We didn't realise 20 years ago that the whole landscape of literature was about to change with the release of the first 500 copies of JK Rowling's debut. When you look at the lists of people's favourite books ever, it's highly likely that Harry Potter will always top, or at least be near the top, of a reader's most loved novels. They have overtaken such classics as To Kill a Mockingbird and The Lord of the Rings. Despite everyone being convinced it wouldn't take off, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone has reached an insane amount of people all around the world and has got so many children into reading. I have some intense views about Rowling nowadays (see my many old school rants) but I will always respect what she has achieved. She found previously unknown success through writing and has inspired generations people: young and old.

That's the great thing about Harry Potter. It was the first time that children's fiction also became super popular for adults. It was the first time I remember my whole family being invested in the same book. I didn't really think about it at the time but it was a really binding experience. Every time a new book came out I would read it first and then it would be passed round my entire family. We would discuss the books and would all share in the excitement and sadness that ensued. The majority of my friends read them too and we would talk about theories together all the time. I remember writing to a penfriend and theorising over who the Half Blood Prince was before the book came out. We wrote fucking pages about the books in our correspondence.

I only ever queued up at midnight for the final book but my friends and I did it together. It was a really great night. We went to a friend's house, got food, and messed about with our homemade magic wand (they were literally just sticks from her garden). Then we headed into town and stood in line with all of the eager kids. I admit that I was in that period where I (mistakenly) felt a little too cool to be doing it and I forced my friends to leave their "wands" in the car. However, I'm so glad I did it. The day after we'd all finished reading it I remember going out with the same friends and we all just felt numb. We genuinely didn't know what to do now it was over. We'd dedicated 10 years to this story and it was just finished... and with such a terrible epilogue. I didn't know what to feel. I was a mix of sad, happy and kind of angry.

Which is why I think my feelings towards the series have cooled off a bit now. You see, unlike a lot of fans out there I haven't obsessively reread the books every year since I first read them. I think it's partly because, after I read the final book, I was done. It took so long for me to get over the book that, when I did, I wanted that to be it. It sounds really fucking stupid but it was like a breakup. There was so much pain that when it eventually went away I didn't want to risk getting back to that feeling. Also, if I'm honest, I've never managed to get all the way through the first 2 books again. They just feel so childish now. However, that doesn't mean that I don't love them. After all, they have shaped my life in such a massive way and in ways that I probably don't even realise. Just as they have for so many other people.

After all, these books aren't just fun children's literature. They taught us all so much about life. It's not a glossy and lovely Disney world where everyone is happy and good always triumphs over evil. This is  a story where awful things happen to good people and they struggle to go the right thing. We saw discrimination at work and we saw the oppressed standing up for themselves. The thing the book's did most of all was offer hope. It showed that, no matter how awful things get, with people by our side we can get through anything. The books don't sugarcoat life for children but inspire them to keep going. It's no wonder that so many studies have shown that fans of the book show an increased sense of empathy towards others. They taught us that difference isn't something to rally against but to embrace.

What has been so lovely in the run-up to today is the amount of people sharing memories about the books. On Instagram there are Harry Potter related posts everywhere and people from all over the world are bonding over one series of books. These books are decades old and they are still bringing people together. Writing this post has forced me to look back over my time in this fandom and it's actually been quite emotional. I forget just how massive a part of my life this was. Little silly memories come back to me and it's wonderful. I grew up with these books and will always have a place for them in my heart. I've since moved on to bigger and better novels but Harry Potter is about so much more than the writing. Yes, JK Rowling wasn't the best writer but she improved in every new book. Yes, her ideas weren't original and she took bits from other work. That doesn't matter. Harry Potter doesn't survive because of the quality. It survives because of how is makes you feel. It's nostalgic and charming but it's also important and embracive. It's a community that, admittedly, sometimes can be a bit brutal but is somewhere you always have a place.

I was 10 when I started reading and I was 19 when it ended. I had grown up with this series and my love had only grown deeper with each book. I dabbled in both reading and writing fanfiction. I bought merchandise, played the video game, and went to see every film. I signed up to Pottermore immediately. I'm 29 years old now and I still can't get enough. Harry Potter was my first fandom before I even knew what a fandom was. It's something that I am so glad to be a part of and am so grateful to my father for buying that book. I'm not trying to be melodramatic but who knows how different my life could have been. I studied literature at university and I'm pretty sure these books pushed me deeper into reading. I have made so many friends over these books and continue to make connections because of them. There's been times when I've kept my love of the series quiet because I feel too old for it now. Or played it down with friends who don't share the love. Not anymore. As I've already said, I'm pretty fucking old now and I'm at an age where I don't give a shit. I'm a Harry Potter nerd and there's fuck all wrong with that.

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