I can’t even remember exactly when I first learned of the wildly popular Harry Potter series of novels and its subsequent franchise of movies, theme park attractions, and assorted merchandise. It was probably early in the last decade, when I was still in college. All I know is that I quickly decided that I hated the whole enterprise. I hadn’t read so much as page one of book one, and I swore that I never would — my iconoclastic and misanthropic tendencies were inflamed by the frenzy that this pubescent little four-eyed wizard inspired. Nothing that was so popular could possibly be any good.
Besides, it was one thing for children to buy into these tales of magic and wonder and secondary school angst. But what really annoyed me was the way grown men and women were going bonkers over kids’ stuff. I rolled my eyes at the 20- and 30-somethings lined up outside of bookstores at midnight dressed in cloaks and striped scarves and pointy hats, waiting for the next installment in the series. Harry Potter release days were like Black Friday on bovine growth hormones. Oh, and the less said about the reams of fan fiction, the better.
I was baffled that so many of my friends gushed over Harry and his Hogwarts crew. These were intelligent, well-read guys and girls whose interests largely intersected with mine. How could they get sucked in to something that seemed to a cynical outsider to be a massive cash grab cribbed from the superior works of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis? Instead of picking up a book or a DVD and making an informed decision, I blindly raged on — until last November.
My then-girlfriend Barbara, another longtime Potter holdout, had finally given the books a shot and loved them. I wasn’t convinced, but when I spent Thanksgiving weekend with her she popped in the DVD of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” the first film in the series. It was late and I didn’t feel like arguing, and I’d come to trust her judgment on most matters of pop culture (though I never fully bought into “True Blood”), so I acquiesced. You know what? It was harmless enough. The story was engaging, there were elements of humor and suspense, and my face didn’t melt. My foot was in the door.
Now Barbara nudged me a little further down the path, loaning me the first two books. She assured me they were quick reads, so I wouldn’t be investing a terrible amount of time and effort. I breezed through The Sorcerer’s Stone in a few days, and it was well-written. I probably wasn’t fully drawn in because I generally knew what was coming next based on the film, but I recognized the greater detail and subtleties that had been lost in the translation to screen. It was Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the second book, that really converted me. It was a darker story than its predecessor, with higher stakes and more complex relationships. I had to know what would happen next, and in a flash it was two books down, five to go.
My impatience led me to check out the third and fourth books from the library during a day off the following week; without exaggeration, this was my first library transaction in six years. I even swallowed my self-consciousness and ventured into the children’s section to procure them. (In my mind, everyone was looking askance at the bearded man in the hooded sweatshirt with the armful of kiddie lit.) By the New Year, I’d finished both books. I relied on my good friends Tess and Molly as a lending library for the balance of the Harry Potter saga, and in the span of two months I’d read the whole lot of them: Seven books totaling 4,100 pages. For good measure, I also watched the first six movies, investing another 15-plus hours.
I can neither confirm nor deny that I spent a snowy January afternoon voraciously tearing through the last few hundred pages of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, feeling equal parts dread and excitement for the ever-closer conclusion of the adventure. I certainly wouldn’t admit that I got choked up on multiple occasions as characters reconciled or mourned their losses, and I certainly didn’t laugh through my tears when one character surprised me with a profane (but highly justified) outburst in a climactic scene.
I might not be rushing out to buy a Gryffindor scarf or to join a Quidditch league, but I feel better for having read these books. I might even return to Hogwarts someday, when it’s time to encourage my own kids to venture beyond the world of Muggles.