On Sunday, June 26, Writer's Almanac noted that it was the anniversary of the publication of the first Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (1997). Five years ago, in a speech at Western Reserve Academy, I recalled my experiences reading the Potter novels--so here's what I said (lightly edited) ... from May 4, 2012 ...
Potter & Proust, Trollope & Powers
… I want to talk about a phenomenon, one that in recent decades has compelled me to do some strange things. A phenomenon, I’m certain, that in ways has touched many of you, as well. I would guess that quite a few of you have read all the Hunger Games books? All the Twilight saga? The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings? And all of Harry Potter? A lot of us do that—read them all. How addictive some books can be. Most of you literally grew up with Harry Potter. So let’s start with that little fella. And let’s go back to 2007. Five years ago. And here’s what I felt, back then, about our bespectacled, cute little wizard boy …
Harry Potter? Harry Schmotter!
I was sick of all the hype, sick of hearing people use words that aren’t words (Muggles? Dementor?), sick of hearing people talk about fantasy characters as if they were actual (Dumbledore? Snape? the Weasleys?). And at the movies (yes, I went to see them) I could no longer bear the laughter at things I didn’t get. I was ready to sucker punch the next sorry soul who dared utter Malfoy or Patronus in my presence. (And did some friends really need to tell me they thought Hermione was hot! Emma Watson’s a child, you pervs!)
And then, late that summer of 2007, while my wife, Joyce, was out of town for a week, I read all of Harry Potter. All seven novels. One each day. All 4162 freaking pages.
Not bad for an old muggle, eh? But why did I do that? Well, as Shakespeare said, thereby hangs a tale … at least one …
Here’s one problem: Crouching near the junction of my spinal cord and brain is a sort of cerebral Cerberus, a mangy mutt that refuses to allow my arm to extend, my fingers even to touch, say, The Da Vinci Code when I see copies stacked everywhere. Not, that is, until everyone else on the planet has moved on. (In April 2006, I finally did read Dan Brown’s novel. By that time it had been on the New York Times best-seller list for more than three years; on the internet, signed first printings were going for a lot.* I thought the novel sucked, big-time.)
Another reason I’d neglected The Potteriad: I’d retired from public-school teaching in 1997, the year of Harry’s Advent. Had he arrived a few years earlier, I would have read his adventures eagerly—and encouraged my eighth graders to do so, as well. But no longer in a middle school classroom, I wasn’t reading any books written for children or adolescents. (I know: elitist!)
But mostly it was just plain petulance that kept me at wand’s length from Harry and Hermione and the others. The wildly disproportionate popularity of Harry Potter seemed so … unfair. In the 1970s I’d urged my students to read the fantasy series by Lloyd Alexander (the Chronicles of Prydain) and Ursula K. Le Guin (the Earthsea novels)—both featuring sturdy nerdy lads who discover their wizardly endowments and employ them in the service of Good. Those books sold well—and remain in print—but generated no mania to rival the global Harry-hysteria. So it just wasn’t fair, you know?
And anyway, I was positive that the whole Potter phenomenon would just … evanesce. And quickly too. Like pet rocks and poodle skirts.
Don’t think I was spooked by the staggering Potter page count—or by the mounting number of volumes. I fear no fat books, no long series. … And in my youth, I read, oh, 1000 Hardy Boys novels and (without telling any of my guy friends, who would not have understood) some Nancy Drew books, mostly because I thought the movie actress who played her, Bonita Granville, was hot. Maybe if I read her books, she’d, you know, love me? (Is there anything more pathetic than a horny seventh grader?)
|Bonita Granville as Nancy Drew|
(I wanted to be that boy!)
In my undergraduate days at Hiram College I had fallen under the permanent sway of Professor Abe C. Ravitz, who showed us the importance of reading an author’s complete works. So when we were reading Frank Norris’ McTeague, Dr. Ravitz told us about Norris’ Moran of the Lady Letty and Blix and The Octopus and the others. I even read the damn things myself. That was the way, I’d discovered, to earn the respect of Dr. Ravitz, who, now in his eighties, is a Facebook friend. Once, telling us about Norris’ novel Vandover and the Brute, Dr. Ravitz introduced the word lycanthropy—very useful when the Underworld movies came along.
But Dr. Ravitz has also profoundly complicated my life. I am now almost incapable of reading any books by any writers without then reading everything else they ever wrote. Popular fiction, serious fiction, classic fiction, trash fiction—doesn’t matter. And so I’ve read scores of thrillers by Michael Connelly and Dennis Lehane and K. C. Constantine. I’ve been sleuthing through the alphabet with Sue Grafton. A single Chuck Palahniuk launched me on a circumnavigation of his entire wacko world. I’ve kept up with Stephen King and stopped reading John D. MacDonald and Ed McBain and Robert B. Parker only because, well, they died. Some years ago, I consumed the complete novels of Dickens, whose Great Expectations I simply could not make myself read in high school. (I’d despised it, failed every daily reading quiz.)
Here at WRA, one of our summer reading selections, My Ántonia, sent me on a journey through all of Willa Cather—including her soporific poems. Just [listen] …
From “Arcadian Winter”:
White enchantment holds the spring,
Where thou once wert wont to sing,
And the cold hath cut to death
Reeds melodious of thy breath.
The Red Badge of Courage meant some days devoted to Stephen Crane’s somewhat less celebrated The O’Ruddy. When Tobias Wolff visited here (to talk about his novel Old School), I read all of his other books, including his first, Ugly Rumours (1975), a Vietnam War novel published only in England and never reissued. Back in my middle-school teaching years, I read all of Shakespeare because I taught The Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado about Nothing—and all fifty of Jack London’s books because The Call of the Wild was in our literature anthology—among those fifty, two of the worst novels every written by a human being, two dog stories: Jerry of the Islands and its abysmal sequel, Michael, Brother of Jerry.
For another of my professions—book-reviewing—I’ve read all of Jonathan Franzen, Rick Moody, Patricia Hampl, Tom Perrotta, Jim Harrison, Paul Auster, Suzanne Berne, William Styron, and numerous others. I’ve failed only with Joyce Carol Oates, who writes nearly as fast as I read. And I’ve just recently finished the complete works of John O’Hara—more than thirty volumes.
To be continued ...
*Just checked right now--on ABE a signed 1st printing is going for $2750 (link to site).