What Harry Potter Knows

July 14, 2011 | 25 8 min read

coverThis is one of those weeks in which everyone talks about Harry Potter, and in which it’s tempting to be that writer, you know that writer, who does the jaded contrarian take on it all.  There would be some grounds for it.  At times like these, the force of Pottermania can feel like an eclipse, blocking out the light of sense and reason.  Try to engage someone in a serious conversation about the merits of the movies this week, and you’ll see what I mean.  Even professional critics have always trod softly around these films, generally thumbing them up.  But you can excavate hints of ambivalence from even the most positive reviews, when they do things like call The Sorcerer’s Stone “fun and harmless” (Salon) or note that The Half-Blood Prince; “opens and closes well” (Ebert).

Caveat emptor: when I have watched the movies, it’s usually been at home, so that I can keep my finger hovering over the fast-forward button, skipping from one transcendent glimpse of Alan Rickman to the next.   (That voice, that voice!)  Even when one did upend my expectations – like Alfonso Cuarón’s Prisoner of Azkaban – much depended on my private image of Cuarón in the enemy territory of a boardroom, raising his fists at the Hollywood suits, insisting that Hermione must wear that pink hoodie as a matter of Art, Beauty and Truth.  In other words: I fed my enthusiasm with a parable about the liberation of the creative class, and not so much the movie itself.

But this is a week in which I keep wondering what I’m missing by being, well, like that.  The easy money for a critic is to rail on about the corporate pablum of the monoculture.  But on some level people do want their Potter-inspired tears, it truly means something to them.  Hollywood PR flackery is at best only a partial culprit.  Most of the people who will arrive at the movie theatre in nervous anticipation this Friday night are not mere automatons of a capitalist machine.  Listening to them on the news, in all the endless End Of An Era pieces, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the depth of the longing in their voices.  It’s like the memory of something very good is just beyond their reach, and the movie promises, if vaguely, to remind them of it.

There is something bittersweet and even, I know, I know, we shouldn’t use this word anymore but, sacred in that.  Something we should be less afraid to acknowledge.  Glib analysis of the means of cultural production is comparatively comforting, I know, because dollars and cents are concrete, things we can put in a spreadsheet, calculate out, close the file on.  But just because the ink dries up when we go to set this other thing on paper doesn’t mean we should ignore it.

See, the great mystery of Rowling’s skill is that she just knew how to elicit this kind of attachment.  We can talk about this in litcrit-approved terms, if you like.  The usual line is that the Potter books are storytelling in the old vein, stuffing their readers so full of plot they haven’t a moment to consider anything else.  There’s a truth to that: I do not think of Rowling as a “good writer,” exactly.  Her skills are better classified as imaginary, which I, for one, don’t think of as a consolation prize.  (The imagination is a good chunk of the distance between writing good, lasting fiction and writing criticism on the internet.)  There’s a wide and often mysterious abyss between the transporting power of Rowling’s ideas and her ability to set them down in language.  And let’s not overstate the dichotomy between the where, what, why and how of a story, and the way it is written; trip over too many bad sentences, too much stiff dialogue, and all the Fawkeses and Pensieves and Rooms of Requirement will be lost to you, no matter their other powers of enchantment.

But all those observations explain very little, because I’d bet you know those references.  Because even if you are an excessively cerebral, overly verbal, altogether too critical person (like me), you probably lived the cliché, and on at least one, and perhaps several, nights in the last ten years, stayed up til four a.m. devouring all of this imperfectly articulated fancy.

coverThere is the element of age to consider.  I am actually a bit older than the generation who actually grew up with Pottermania.  I only remember hearing of the series around the time Goblet of Fire came out, which would have made me 21 that first very late night.  And even to 21, adventures composed to appeal to 11 through 14 seem a bit naive, a bit, you know, young.

But I keep thinking of this: a few years ago I was at a dinner party, where the particular cross-section of my friends in attendance was decidedly bookish in character.  They were of the I-have-a-corporate-job-but-also-an-English-degree type, prone to direct all casual talk to reading (past, present, and future).  The ferocity of their quasi-literary posturing can be surprising, sure, but it’s just that the rest of the life they’ve built is predicated on the irrelevance of something that once meant so much to them.  (The sincerity of that hunger is what keeps these people from seeming pretentious to me, if you’re wondering.)  At one point in the conversation people began comparing favorite books, by which they seemed to mean books that had been integral to the way they saw the world, to the way they understood things.  And I remember suddenly developing an enormous interest in the (bad) wine, drinking rapidly to keep from talking seriously, because the prospect of saying something tipsy and silly was less embarrassing than reporting the actual truth.

coverWhich is that there is no book in the world that has had quite the effect on who I am as L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables.  In imagining the epitome of beauty, my mind still defaults to violet eyes and alabaster brows.  I find myself unreasonably susceptible to falling for jerks because my paradigmatic suitor was one who first hinted at his love by way of calling her “Carrots.”  Whenever I do cringeworthy things in my life, which is to say every day, the Mrs. Rachel Lynde that book installed in my psyche intones anew: “Anne. Shirley.  You are HEEDLESS and IMPULSIVE.”  (Forgive the italics, another Montgomery indulgence.)

But I know, as well as you do, that in dinner party conversations like that one, some such pedestrian book is not The Right Answer.  I have loved my copy of Anne to literal pieces, the spine cracked and fragile, the edges of the pages grass-stained from the backyards and parks I used to read in before I grew old enough for bars and coffeeshops.  But I know it is not a “literary masterpiece.”  So the inner buzzer sounds, do not pass go, try again.  Once more, with Roberto Bolaño or A.S. Byatt or David Foster Wallace, please.

Isn’t it funny that this is what happens to us?  That even if you love books, if you start to dedicate your life to them, a light goes out, somehow.  You come to know them with your brain rather than your soul.  Maybe it’s just one more sad example of how you’ve grown up.  And I know, I know, in some ways these books aren’t just “un-literary” – there are parts of them that are flat-out dishonest, sentimental, destructive.  It’s not that all those endless lessons on technique I’ve internalized aren’t right, strictly speaking.  But it isn’t the least bit of hyperbole for me to say that as an adult who is a voracious reader, I know that I am going to spend the rest of my life not quite managing to love a book the way I loved Anne, to read it the way I did the first, second, thirty-fifth time.  I know that the rest of my reading life is just a thinly-disguised effort to forge a path back to that, but I’ll never get there.

So I admit that when I read Harry Potter, the main appeal of it is how it tries to reach me the way Anne once did.

Maybe you find that a strange thing to say.  I wouldn’t argue with you that the Anne and Harry Potter books are worlds apart in diction, tone, setting.  Anne’s milieu is anti-magical, its animating spirit best stated as the well-scrubbed Canadian practicality of your favorite great-aunt.  Meanwhile, Harry rarely cracks a book in the Potter series, much less seems to want to write one.   But there is one important sense in which the books are kindred spirits, as Anne would say.  Annes and Harrys – and their intended readers – are people with whole lives of possibility before them.  They do not have cars and mortgages and 401(k)s.  If they are acquainted with certain grim facts of life – are orphans – the promise of more disappointment, or even just of the status quo, does not yet seem the only thing that life could hold.  Annes and Harrys belong to a time in one’s life when living is a glass you’ve yet to fill.  When you can be a writer if you just want it badly enough.

Perhaps most importantly: when it is still dimly possible that on any given afternoon a giant will sweep you away from your ugly little life and inform you that you are the savior of all Wizardkind.

coverThe kind of critics who find all human joy suspicious use accusatory tones when they call this sort of thing “escapist.”  Here, for them, is a bit of realism: I can still tell you, without looking it up, that The Deathly Hallows was released on the 21st of July, 2007.

I was then living in New York, working at a corporate law firm.  A friend of mine was in town that month, visiting her boyfriend.  Uncharacteristically, she kept cancelling our appointments to go out.  But I thought very little of it, because I was too busy contemplating the corner I had backed my own life into.

Then one morning her boyfriend sent me an email at work: “I am at the hospital.  S. is sick.  Please come.”

A thing you wouldn’t know, if you’ve not much personal experience with medicine, is how breathtakingly uncertain everything can be.  How many procedures are “exploratory.”  How much time you’ll spend waiting for an answer that amounts to, “We just don’t know.”  How the wrong thing to do is to hope that they will say that they have located the problem, that they have a plan to fix it, that they will hold off the siege of the illness in the following well-defined and concrete list of ways.  The best thing you can expect is to have the strength to expect nothing.

It was in such a context that it was determined, after a number of days, that the thing they would try to do for S. was a procedure with a fancy name that, to you and I, translates as cutting into someone’s skull.  It was determined that this would happen on the morning of the 21st of July, 2007.

That morning, her boyfriend and I took a walk around the West Village.  It was very sunny, which offended for the obvious reason and also because neither of us had slept much.  Over the past few days he and I had talked each other out, so we said little.

We got coffee at one of those shops where they make designs in the foam.  The barista made me a heart.  I was not in the mood.  I took a sip, dissolving it.

Then I saw all those credulous people lined up outside a Barnes and Noble, and I remembered what day it was.  When the store opened, I bought the book.  And then we went back to the waiting room.

I had not read anything longer than a tabloid magazine in days, but I got about halfway through before they wheeled her back.  And told us everything had gone well.

This was the climax of the story, the return, the recovery.  But I admit, a bit shamefully: it took my eyes a moment to focus, looking up.  I didn’t come directly back.  But the next breath I took, out there in the real world, was that of someone surfacing after a long stretch underwater.

And some of you will call me a credulous, sentimental fool, but maybe reality had been too much for me.  When I got to the end of the book, which was that day or maybe the next, I don’t remember, but when I got to that part of Harry’s death-dream where:

“Tell me one last thing,” said Harry.  “Is this real?  Or has this been happening inside my head?”

Dumbledore beamed at him, and his voice sounded loud and strong in Harry’s ears even though the bright mist was descending again, obscuring his figure.

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth does that mean that it is not real?”

There’s no less embarrassing way to say this: I wept.

But whether it was for Harry, or Dumbledore, or for the child I used to be, who was once comforted by such pretty nonsense, I could not tell you.

See Also: A History of Magic: A Children’s Librarian Reflects on Harry Potter, and Offers a Post-Hogwarts Syllabus, Dreaming of Hogwarts and Hunger Games

's Sharp: The Women Who Made An Art of Having an Opinion will be published in 2017.


  1. I have a friend trying to get me to read the Potter books, and I keep refusing because they seem like so much best-selling pablum. But I remember reading certain books over and over to find the joy that your chosen excerpt caused to well up in my chest. Thanks for writing this.

  2. I haven’t read any of the Harry Potter books, nor seen the movies, but this was nonetheless a fascinating essay. I was pretty saddened, though, by the paragraph about your love for Anne of Green Gables (my childhood favorite as well). It seems so tragic that you couldn’t admit to friends that this book had changed your life; or, too, that you hadn’t been moved in that way by a book for so long. It seems to me that maybe you should hang with a different crowd, or drink more of that wine so that you can be free to be yourself! Embrace all the things you truly love!

  3. Wonderfully written and dead on except for the last sentence. I don’t see why what Dumbledore said is “pretty nonsense”. Of course, it may be the difference between how we interpret that line and with my philosophy and religion background — with my years of studying epistemology and metaphysics and subjective/objective truth — maybe we just have different views on what that phrase could mean.

    But I think you are on to something when you used the word sacred….about how the stories point to something we long for….just out of reach. I don’t wish to argue that these books are something more than they are but I do think that, as you suggest, Rowling knew how to tap into that special something that you eloquently describe. And that special something has more in common with existential truths that are more in line with “sacred truths”. The mysterious experience of being alive, moving toward death, feeling love, seeing beauty. Things that dance in and out of the ineffable and are couched in poetry and beautiful prose…or sometimes captured in a fun story.

    Thanks for once again reminding us of that in your own beautiful way.

  4. I think that the fact that you wept simply shows why, despite our best over-educated efforts to analyze literature by taking it apart and examining it, thereby killing it, even it the heart stops beating, the soul of storytelling survives.

  5. I loved this essay.

    I too hadn’t heard of the series before Goblet of Fire, but I decided that I would buy each book and read it once I heard that kids were waiting in line to read these books. I don’t ever remember that. I remember people waiting in line for Guns n Roses albums and probably some video games, definitely movies, but books? As a book lover, snobbish or not, I felt that I needed to be a part of that. Of course, the fantasy, adventure, quick-moving plots, and true readability of Rowling’s prose ultimately kept me true to my plan.

  6. I resent Bolano and Wallace being one sentence away from reading with the brain and not the soul. Read them again.

  7. I, as part of of the Potter generation and as someone who now has a degree in English, have for days been trying to articulate everything that this essay says. Thank you. It was lovely.

  8. I have 3 degrees in literature. I never read the Potter books; my kids read them to me along years of a painful divorce and a great deal of loss. At first I thought well, this is a decent, if not terribly well written source of escape for all of us, but Rowling’s rich imagination won me over. The critic in my head shut up and I realized that the books were far more helpful than escape. They actually helped soften our numb grief and gave us the chance to explore feelings of sadness, hope and joy in a safe context until we were able to experience them freely again in real life. My children are now grown. I was more excited than they were about the movie, which I saw yesterday. A friend from India who is a psychologist and mother of two serious, brainy kids, saw me bound out of the theater beaming with joy. Her eyes met mine as I thought of ways to hide or excuse my childish exuberance. “Hey, wasn’t that great?,” she said, almost as excited as me, and then added, “My kids weren’t crazy to read the books, but I made them read them. It all reminds me of the Bhagdavad Gita.” Reading surprise in my eyes, she explained, “we’re not believers, you know, but I wanted to acquaint the kids with Jung and the Gita without making them read Jung or the Gita,” and she laughed. I laughed too, suddenly grateful to a writer who was enough of a believer, despite her own grief, to invent a potion anyone around the world can take to revert the adult intellect to the state of hope and joy you so eloquently celebrate.

  9. Excellent essay. Beautiful.

    Also agree with Sasha – DFW and Bolano have heart. Felt the tears welling up more than once with both of them.

    Comment on the Anne of Green Gables / favorite book theme:

    “That even if you love books, if you start to dedicate your life to them, a light goes out, somehow. You come to know them with your brain rather than your soul.”

    I disagree here. I think the issue is a misunderstanding around what the questioner wants. They don’t actually want to know your favorite book – they want a recommendation. Books that are wrapped in emotion and childhood and soul and flashlights under the covers aren’t going to give them the same experience it gave you. So, you don’t recommend it.

    The big hitters – Bolano, DFW, Byatt, Hemingway, Joyce, etc. – well, they might go after your head a little more, but they probably land a gut punch or two with every reader. It’s safer.

  10. Lovely essay, Michelle. Particularly the ending.

    The first Harry Potter book came out when I was 10, so I was completely enthralled from the beginning. There is something vaguely sacred about them. Escapism isn’t quite the right word, but it’s in the right realm. Reading Harry Potter, like reading Anne of Green Gables(lovedlovedloved that book too), always filled me with this sense of being drunk on the story, being full of this almost majestic sense of possibility. Kind of like becoming infatuated with someone. Senselessly hopeful, obsessed, dreamy.

    I find it very sad that you say you don’t think you could ever love a book as an adult the way you loved Anne of Green Gables. I think you can fall in love with a book in a very similar way, no matter how much older you are, or how many English degrees you hold, or how loud the critic is inside you. I’m madly in love with Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water, and that just came out this spring. Keep the faith. You can love that way again.

  11. Loved this. Your Anne is my Meg O’Keefe of L’Engle’s world. I know just what you mean about reading as an adult vs. reading as a child – that element of immersion is sadly rare these days. Glad your friend’s surgery went well.

  12. This is a lovely essay. :)

    And I see the difference between reading with the brain and reading with the soul a bit differently than a few of the commenters here. They seem to think that “reading with the brain” indicates reading books that don’t reach the heart, though their own examples prove that isn’t the case. It means choosing books that are considered high literary works regardless of other considerations. Naturally, there’s a reason these books are considered great (namely that they ARE great), but that isn’t the only thing that can make books great, and reading with the brain excludes books that are fantastic in heart but not typically considered to be as quality literature even though they are great books in their own right, just for different reason. So reading with the heart means loving books for any greatness they offer while reading with the brain means loving books because they are technically great literature. I’m worried I haven’t explained this well… anyway, I’m just saying I don’t see the author’s original comment as an insult to any author or book.

  13. Michelle – You had me until you wept. Six months ago my aunt Betty died of cancer at 69. She was everyone’s favorite, including uncle Bob, her husband of 50 years. She was a fearless woman with a perpetually hopeful outlook and an infectious laugh. When she died, we all cried. No one weeps in real life. Willows weep. People cry. They break things and bury their faces in the pillow and they finish the vodka, but they never weep.
    And why is that book, or anything, nonsense if it comforts you? Maybe I’m over-thinking the whole thing. Maybe your essay is for entertainment. Maybe…maybe, writers weave stories because they are raconteurs, and not because every line is written with the hope of having an intellectual’s cosmic meaning ascribed to it.
    You are a gifted, wonderful writer and I wish you would write more. I’ve learned from your other pieces, but sometimes you just gotta cry, or call me and I’ll buy you a drink. And on a lighter note; your eye-roll avatar on Twitter is charming.

  14. On second thought. Who the hell am I to comment on something so well thought out and polished? I hope I didn’t offend you. Who am I, William Zinsser? You’re great. Keep up the fine work. Have a fantastic weekend. And ‘charming’? Now I’m Dick Cavett. omg what a jerk, sorry. Sometimes I think I’m smarter than I actually am.

  15. There were some good points to this essay, but at the same time it read as pompous and airy. I really don’t think you can make a comment on JK Rowling’s writing. It’s not Joyce, but it’s good. There’s a reason why she’s sold something like 450 million copies of the HP books. This more or less read in the same manner as somebody who sticks their nose up at people who don’t know their wines and somebody who feels the need to talk over everyone at a dinner party about their favorite piece of literary fiction and how NOBODY can write like Proust anymore. Stop being embarrassed by liking Harry Potter. Stop caring what people think.

  16. Loved this beautiful essay with its “wide scope” for thought, as all these comments prove! My childhood favorites were about how little I had really thought or felt or experienced of the world — everything was so novel and shiny that even the hoariest cliches and plot contrivances were spankin’ new to me. And how right you are about frantic adult reading as an attempt to recapture that first, great literary love. It is hard to turn off the adult critic but every rereading of Little Women makes me just as happy now as it did way, way back then. Thank you for reminding me to go dust it off and sink in: “‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,'” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug. . .” Ahhhh

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