When someone asks who my favorite band is I never think to say The Beatles. They are my favorite band. But their songs were imprinted on me so early and often in my life that I don’t really think of them that way. They seem like something more basic, like part of the natural universe, part of the structure of my cells.
There are a half-dozen other pieces of art worked into my character the same way. But you have to be a certain fragile age for them to slip inside so deeply that they become part of you, and for me the last one that made it through the (wardrobe) door was “Harry Potter”: which is, remarkably, 20 now. (“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” was published in the U.S. in September 1998.)
Some initiatory rites, in case you are a fellow fanatic. I have an order of preference for the books (3-1-6-4-7-5-2), a house (Ravenclaw, unless the Sorting Hat nudged me to Hufflepuff), a favorite minor character (Remus Lupin) and a favorite major one (Hermione Granger).
I can name all the horcruxes. I can tell you what’s in the core of Tom Riddle’s wand. I have competed – I do not say this with pride – in pub quizzes.
I don’t love the movies as much as I love the books, but I don’t mind if you do.
How many times have I read them? I once asked my friend Alice that question, and she said she would be embarrassed to count – she just picked one up whenever she felt a bit down. (She’s British, which mean she says things like “a bit down.”) For my part, I would say I’ve read “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” 25 times or so, though that’s a guess.
It’s a curious feeling to know that book has been in print here for 20 years, and that the last in the series has itself been out for 11. It means that while people will go on discovering and falling in love with them, the books are officially part of history.
What I think will be hardest to convey to anyone who missed it was the excitement when a new one came out. It was like – well, Beatlemania. People lined up at bookstores the day before as if there were going to be something other than books on sale there. (As if you could buy real magic inside!) Many were dressed up as witches and wizards. There were 6-year-olds with long white beards, like Albus Dumbledore, and 60-year-olds with lightning bolt scars.
Why that passion?
In the first place, to state the obvious, the books are good. Very, very, super good. When I teach I often use J.K. Rowling to demonstrate how a master generates suspense: lots of little secrets running a relay race through the story (How is Hermione getting to so many classes? Who sent Harry the Firebolt?), while a bigger, more momentous mystery plays out overhead.
Few writers have ever had her gift for sheer intricate invention – Diagon Alley alone! – and there’s almost never been a better conceit than this one: An orphan discovers he’s going to a wizarding boarding school.
But forget how skillful the series is for a moment. What distinguishes it most is Rowling’s fierce attention, the unmistakable sense that she cared just as much as we did about every detail of her world. The pages of a “Harry Potter” book radiated with the feeling of that love.
The person who introduced me to Harry was my wonderful sister Julia. (“Why has it come out of the binding in thick chunks everywhere?” I asked her. “Mind your own business,” she replied.) I read “Sorcerer’s Stone” in a single day, and at the end I turned back to Page 1 and started again.
Adulthood rarely contains that sort of radical enthrallment, maybe never. What a loss! Except that to have come of age with “Harry Potter” means that it is, at least in brief spells, an optional loss. They’re ours forever, these books – 20 years going on forever, as of 2018. In their familiar chapters we can go back and be young once again, home once again. For a little while, anyway; before returning to the Privet Drives all around.