Communities and Stories; A Lesson From Being Late to Harry Potter

A confession; Harry Potter is not one of my favorite series of all time.

That is not to say that they are not excellent books. I cried at the deaths of Hedwig, Sirius, Dumbledore, Fred, Lupin and Tonks. I have a Hagrid keychain. It hits the perfect blend of entertaining and intelligent and I would recommend it to anyone without reservation. But when I think of my favorite books, or series, or fictions of any sort, Harry Potter does not come immediately to mind. It trails along at the end, helped along mainly by its street cred with all my favorite nerds. This has no relation to its objective quality.

It’s not my favorite because I read it alone.

My parents were the sorts of Christians usually seen as side characters in sitcoms. It only took one demagogic editorial to convince them their children’s souls depended on Emblem of Secular Culture X being banned. Harry Potter was banned; like Halloween and Pokemon, it might lead to Satan worship. I read the first three books in secret at age 17 while the rest of the family was on a beach trip, and finished the series years later.

When I talk to people who are hardcore Harry Potter fans, they don’t just talk about the excellence of the series. They played the computer and board games, dissected the books on forums, bought the legos, and stood in line together at midnight for the latest copy. It was not just that the books were fun and smart; it was that there was an abundance of people to share the enjoyment and analysis. By contrast, when I finished the series, the last book was already three years old. The mysteries had been solved, the characters and themes analyzed to death, and while the fandom is still around it is no longer active. It has a nostalgic feel to it; people whose geekly lives are now dominated by other obsessions periodically looking back to an old, eternal favorite. Sharing my thoughts with these old fans is always a little bit of a letdown. No matter how clever or insightful my thoughts feel to me, they nod and smile in a way that suggests I have not said anything that was not already said, debated, and possibly put on a T-shirt somewhere. I missed the glory days.

I have not, however, missed out on the experience of shared geekery. I have Supernatural and Doctor Who. I listen to Welcome to Night Vale with two of my best friends. Any book, movie or series that my sister and I find, we will eventually share with each other, and when we do the enjoyment doubles. When I think of my own actual favorite books, mostly they are either books that someone I love introduced me to, or that I introduced to someone I love. That goes all the way back to my earliest favorites; The Chronicles of Narnia, my parents choice of bedtime story, and Calvin and Hobbes, my big brother’s choice when he babysat.

Reading books and watching movies are often treated as solitary pursuits, suited mainly to introverts, in contrast with sports and parties. The bit about being suited to introverts may be true, but solitary? If they are, why are there book clubs? Why is “what do you like to read” such a common first date question? In the days before movies and TV, the typical evening pastime was sitting around the fire while someone read aloud. Even the shyest bookworm is a social animal, and the best compliment that can be paid to a story is, “I want my friends to read this!”

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