The following blog post was written by Sally Bittner Bonn, Director of Youth Education at Writers & Books.
“It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”
—Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
I spent the summer re-reading the Harry Potter books. All 4,100 pages. I had decided that because we were offering a SummerWrite Hogwarts Academy class that would completely take over Writers & Books for an entire week, with around 60 devoted Harry Potter fans ranging in age from 8-16—and during which I would be making several appearances as Minerva McGonagall—I should probably brush up by re-reading the first book, since it had been many years. But once I finished the first book, I immediately picked up the second. And when I finished that I opened the third. I gained momentum as I went, and my re-reading of Harry Potter became an unstoppable force, of which I enjoyed every minute.
I was surprised—and quite pleased—at how much I had forgotten, because I was able to make many discoveries, as if for the first time. I had completely forgotten everything that happened once Harry entered the chamber of secrets. I had somehow even forgotten the whole mystery surrounding Mad-Eye Moody.
I am a slow reader, and therefore never re-read books. I had actually reread Harry Potter books 1-4 before the 5th came out, so the fact that this was go-round number three with the first four is not unremarkable. Couple the fact that I am a slow reader with the fact that I am a parent of a young child—a child who has more needs than most of his peers—and with the fact that I run the youth programs at Writers & Books, and with the fact that I am a writer myself, and my reading life can look pretty dull. Many nights I fall into bed, pry open a book, read a couple paragraphs, or if I am lucky, read a couple pages, and I am out.
But not so with Harry Potter. I would find every free minute I could for reading. Waiting for my son’s bus to arrive home in the next five minutes? I was reading. Eating breakfast? I was reading. Sautéing onions? I held the wooden spoon in one hand stirring distractedly and with the other hand held the book open to my page as it lay on the counter. I’d open the book at every moment I had the chance and think just one more page, which would turn into two, and then ten and then several chapters. I found myself saying to my son, more frequently than usual, “Just a second, honey.” I almost felt guilty but decided that a mother as role mode who was reading constantly is not necessarily a bad thing. I would get into bed as early as possible at night and sometimes read for hours.
I originally started reading the Harry Potter books after the first three had been published. As the last four were released (they all came out before we had our son) my husband and I would take turns reading them. We would buy one copy only—as soon as it came out—and then make the near-impossible decision of which of us would get to go first. Once we even decided to alternate chapters—I would read a chapter, he would read a chapter. Except it would always turn out with one of us saying, “Oops, sorry I read 3 chapters instead of just one. Can you hurry up and catch up?!” We only did that for one book and needless to say it wasn’t the best system. It worked out better when one of us would read the book in its entirety and then pass it to the other. We had an agreement that whomever was reading the book was exempt from all household responsibilities: cooking, cleaning, laundry, carrying on conversation during mealtimes… Whichever one of us was reading, we read and read. We plowed through chapters and would usually devour the 600-900 pages in a week’s time. It was like a holiday for us when each book came out.
I was working part-time at Borders when the 5th book came out and I worked the midnight release party. All things considered it was a relatively mellow night. The best part of it was that our manager bought the book for all the staff who worked late that night.
I’ve never seen the movies. On principle. For one, I didn’t want to see someone else’s interpretation of the characters, the places. I wanted to keep my own vivid pictures in my mind alive (of course it is pretty much impossible to completely avoid coming across images from the films at this point in time). Second of all, and almost more importantly to me, the fact that a book series could capture the attention and imagination of so many people of all ages across the globe was so inspiring to me, I didn’t want to let a movie take over that attention. Not that I could stop the millions from watching the films, but I would be one dissenter, quietly boycotting the movies for myself. My son is seven, and when he is ready (AFTER he has read the books of course), if he wants to see the films, I imagine I will watch them with him. I have been so adamant with our son that when he is ready for the books we will read them to him, versus him reading them on his own, that I am afraid that out of pure defiance he will refuse. I so want us to read the books with him, that I have vowed to myself to stop speaking about it!
One of the things I find so remarkable about these books is the fact that they place the ordinary and the extraordinary side by side. Muggles and wizards. There is magic happening all the time, and the muggles don’t even know it. What if there is some truth to that? That magic is happening all around us all the time and we have no idea. The tales are spun so expertly that it is as if we get to actually enter them. We are right there as Harry takes off on the broom the first time, and each time after. We are there having tea and politely declining cauldron cakes in Hagrid’s cabin. We are there at number 4 Privet Drive, as our relatives infuriate us, as we win silent battles with them. The books give us permission to exit our own reality and enter another’s, as if we were diving right into the Pensieve.
These books are escape, yes, but they are filled with wisdoms that connect the magical world to our own muggle existence. We find our own Dumbledores to revere. We remember Neville’s past when we are unsure about someone else’s behavior. We think of Sirius when we might at first fear someone. And we learn to be more compassionate human beings. We memorize latin spells. We eat candy with funny names. And we remember to laugh, thanks to Fred and George, because in the most grave times, laughter can be the best medicine.
I am grateful for this additional journey through the world of Harry Potter, visits to Hogwarts and the Forbidden Forest, encounters with Luna and the Weasleys of course. I am also grateful because rereading Harry Potter has made me notice little moments where I can make more room in my life for reading. I might think I have nearly no time at all, but I have learned I can sneak moments in, to delve into the fictional world of other characters, to visit new places, to gather new perspectives, to make new friends, all through the pages of a book. Now that’s what I call magic.