Well, I was going to start rereading the first Harry Potter book tonight, but when I opened to the first page I found myself daydreaming about where I was when I read each book and saw each movie, and how much my life has changed since I first discovered the books in college. After a couple of minutes of thinking I put the book down and started writing for real, and I ended up with the brain dump/essay below. I hesitated to share this here as it includes a lot of navel-gazing and it’s not my best writing, but I figured if I managed to voluntarily write a two-page essay, I might as well let a few people read it.
[TL; DR: I read the first Harry Potter book a really long time ago. The final movie comes out this summer, two days before my wedding. Things have changed a lot in those eleven years.]
The Boy Who Lived
I’m restarting the Harry Potter series tonight. I’ve read many of the books more than once (especially books 1-4, which featured prominently in my college senior thesis), but this will be my first time reading the entire series straight through. I’m doing this in parallel with three of my best friends with whom I’ve traded theories and imagined endings over the past several years, and our goal is to have each reread the full series by the time the final movie opens in July.
So, just how much has my life changed since I first met Harry?
Early spring 2000: I’m nearing the end of my freshman year of college, and I’ve just pulled one of my first nearly all-nighters finishing some sort of paper. It’s a Friday afternoon and I’m trying to stay awake to get back on a normal sleep schedule, but I’m definitely taking the rest of the day off from schoolwork. It’s a cold, windy day, so I borrow my suitemate Sara’s copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and spend the afternoon in a coffee shop with my good friend Colette. She sketches the people around us for her art class while I finally dive into this book that I’ve been hearing so much about. By the time we head to dinner a couple of hours later, I’ve finished most of the book and I’m hooked.
Summer 2000: I land a semi-regular babysitting job for a family friend’s nine-year-old daughter. Celeste and I enjoy our evenings playing games and watching movies (including “Mystery Men,” which is highly underrated), and at bedtime she likes to be read to. Mostly we read fairy tales, but she’s a Harry Potter fan and we discuss Chamber of Secrets and Prisoner of Azkaban, which I borrow from Colette during what turns out to be my last “normal” summer. When Goblet of Fire is released, I read a couple of chapters out loud to Celeste before begging her to let me read from any other book so I don’t spoil the story for myself. (This is when I begin to realize I have a problem.)
Skipping ahead a bit: I acquire my own paperback copies (including South African editions of books 2 and 3) of the series to date by fall 2002, when I hit upon the idea of making a senior thesis out of the Harry Potter series. I’m majoring in religion, so I figure I can draw some religious ideas out of the lessons Harry learns, and for good measure I throw in the Left Behind series as kind of a fundamentalist-Christian parallel to Harry’s world of witchcraft and wizardry. While my ultimate argument feels somewhat weak (Harry Potter espouses morals that are just as “Christian” as Left Behind, so churches should stop banning it!), I’m graded well and my advisor points out that a religious scholar will be giving a talk comparing the very same books at an upcoming conference. It seems my idea isn’t totally unfounded.
Skipping ahead some more: Order of the Phoenix is released the summer after I finish college (and of course I put my name on the waiting list for friends’ copies), Half-Blood Prince comes out the very night of my last day of work before beginning graduate school (future wedding officiant Danielle and I annoy our fellow hotel guests by reading aloud at breakfast from the book procured at a midnight launch party in Pennsylvania during the first of six yearly amusement park road trips with Matt and Kat), and my pre-ordered copy of Deathly Hallows arrives, courtesy of Danielle’s parents, as I am unpacking and procuring furniture for my brand-new apartment in Seattle. I’m so busy setting up my apartment that I implore my visiting mother to scan news sites before I’ll look at them, just in case CNN or the New York Times has accidentally posted a spoiler. It takes me several days to get started, but once I’ve sent my mom back to California and opened the book I spend hours in a new favorite coffee shop finishing the series that I’d begun in a coffee shop seven years earlier.
Along the way, I’ve been going to see the movies shortly after they’re released. Some I watch in the first few days, some I see at midnight on opening day, and one I watch on Christmas night with two childhood friends since there’s nothing else to do. And now the very final movie is coming out just two days before I get married. Let’s look at that again:
Spring 2000: When I first meet Harry, I’m an 18-year-old who’s still vaguely afraid of boys, sitting in a coffee shop on a cold day in Connecticut with one of my oldest friends. I have two living parents and only the slightest idea of what I might major in, much less what I’ll do after college, much less what I’ll do after that.
Summer 2007: The final book is released as I’m embarking on what for me is a huge life step. My now-widowed mother is helping me move into my first solo apartment in a city I barely know, which I’ve moved to because I’ve managed to land a job at a company I knew next to nothing about just a year earlier. I’m scared and lonely, but for several hours over a couple of days I’m in the company of familiar characters, and when I finish the book I discuss the ending with close friends across the country whose emails remind me that I’m not alone.
And now I look ahead to summer 2011: I’ve made new friends (and kept the old), and one of those new friends turned out to be someone I’d like to spend the rest of my life with (and he picked me too, which is awesome). Eleven years ago I spent an afternoon reading with Colette; this summer she’ll be a bridesmaid at my wedding. Nearly six years ago Danielle and I read out loud to each other from the second-to-last book; in a few short months she’ll be making my marriage official. Almost four years ago Kat, Matt, Danielle and I discussed the full series in great detail; in July Matt will be an usher and Kat will be my maid of honor. I am very seriously considering potentially ruining my sleep schedule shortly before the most-photographed day of my life so I can watch the very first showing of the final installment of the Harry Potter series, hopefully surrounded by all of these people. It just seems fitting.
Part of me thinks it’s silly to draw parallels between a book series and standard life events. Lots of college freshmen have no idea where they’ll end up a decade later, and it’s certainly not unusual for someone to move to a new city and find a life partner among a new network of people. What’s unusual, though, is for a series of stories to have such longevity that it spans life stages. In the past eleven years I’ve matured from an awkward, directionless college student to an awkward, somewhat less directionless adult with one fewer parent but a future husband who embodies many of the qualities I miss most about my father. And as Danielle has pointed out, kids who first encountered Harry as pre-teens in the late 1990s will be viewing this final movie as college graduates. I seriously doubt JK Rowling had any idea how significant her modest character would become, but I’ve grown up with Harry. I’ll probably be emotional when the final movie ends, not only because it doesn’t have the happiest of endings, but also because I’ll be reflecting on how much has changed since I opened the first book. As in the series, I’ve lost some of my favorite people, but I’m ready to move forward with the ones I have left.