And then, as if by magic....
So Harry Potter is 23. Or, he's 30, or he's 33, just about, or maybe 34 going on 35. Or older.
And I'm 57, and that places me well out of the age group for whom J.K. Rowling's books were intended. Since I started my teaching career at about the time we could conjecture that Harry was born, I was well enough past children's literature--even for a secondary English teacher--to be much concerned about the Potter books. Of course I was aware of them, eventually (as who wasn't?), but by then I was already, as much by accident as by inclination, specializing in gifted education, teaching Advanced Placement English and AP Art History and, fortunately situated as I was, devoting much of my personal reading to critical and scholarly works that broadened my knowledge of the subjects I was teaching. It was a question of timing--my career didn't intersect with the spread of Potterdom, except through references by my students.
But I saw the movies as they came out, and noted the midnight release parties at local bookstores--back when there were such things as bookstores--and heard the commentary that the Potter books were leading a surge of reading activity in lower grades. All good. But I was discussing John Gardner's Grendel and modern philosophy while lecturing on Byzantine Art and Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose as I demonstrated the structure and decoration of medieval cathedrals--an enviable professional prospect. I was enjoying that greatest of rarities, a stimulating career in the public-school classroom. Harry Potter just wasn't a part of it.
When my students would comment, I'd volunteer that I understood what the books meant to them (and I was at an arts camp, teaching Creative Writing, the summer that the last volume came out; it was delivered directly from local bookstores to the camp, and some of my students were bleary-eyed with late reading the next morning; I adjusted my lesson plans accordingly). I'd also point out that my own adolescence had passed under very different circumstances (disco, anyone?), and that, even then, young people of my era didn't read children's books--we shunned them in the same way that we didn't go to Disney films or watch cartoons on television: the emphasis at the time, to the extent that I am a representative figure, was on acquiring the earmarks of adulthood. I was even pre-Simpsons, which must have made me look ancient, but it was truly another age. So Harry and his friends and their adventures belonged to a childhood other than--subsequent to--my own.
I was assured by sincere and well-meaning young people that I was missing something truly important, that the movies were but poor simulacra of the books, and that I really should indulge myself; but then I considered the stack of books in my home office--always growing, in spite of a deeply ingrained habit of reading for an hour or so before sleep each night--and I considered that the books are always better than the films, but that the films were good enough for acquaintance's sake, and let the subject drop. Perhaps, if I could concede to myself that I had the chance, I would read the, someday.
Then, without warning, I found myself laid off. This was last June, when the parochial school at which I'd taken refuge from an abusive public school administrator suffered a decline in enrollment. I'd retired from the public system to allow my pension to supplement parochial wages, and was comfortable enough--and then I was no longer needed. This was not the tragedy I'd first supposed, since I could survive, if not comfortably, on that pension as I waited for a position to open up, and if I couldn't resume public school teaching because of my retirement, I could get along well enough to pass up the occasional less-compelling private-school opening as I waited for the spot that would truly interest me. I was, on the whole, lucky. I also had time on my hands.
During the first semester, I collected unemployment and finished work on the script for a musical play, a project I had started--and which had since been hanging over my head--a decade before. That was accomplished by January, midway through the school year. I devoted myself as well to scanning, organizing and cataloging the huge lot of family pictures, correspondence and press clippings, amounting to a local history's worth of source material, that had come down to me over the years. That project is elsewhere on this site, and is continually under revision as more material--and the significance of what I already have--comes to light. Genealogy is a lifetime pursuit.
I had also, as a matter of self-preservation, embarked on a campaign at the local YMCA, walking on a treadmill each day--a habit I had fallen out of after the life changes of a heart attack and a new job (see my earlier reference to failed leadership in education), and something to get me out of the house and into better shape. As I recovered my previous habit, I aimed for a mile-and-a-half walk--about half an hour at a comfortably taxing pace--per session. It was then, as I cast about for something to relieve the boredom of exercise, that I decided to finally fill the gap in my education and, armed with Stephen Fry's audio performances of the Potter books, I made my plodding study of Rowling's output, listening to my outmoded Apple iPod as I trudged.
So, in the course of the past nine months--it is nearing the middle of April as I write; Easter is the day after tomorrow--I have now made it, in fits and starts, through the first three and a half books. (Experienced readers will know that, with each successive book longer and more complex than the last, this is not halfway through the texts, measured in words or pages, but it's at this point that the idea of commenting on my reading and on what the books say to me as I read, has come to its current incarnation.) We are now in the mandated isolation of the coronavirus epidemic--or the first of such isolations, as I fear--and I have a free docket and nothing but quiet time to write.
And so I am organizing my thoughts, and organizing my thoughts about my thoughts, and setting out on a critical inquiry.
Critical is critical, here. Like it or not, I no longer read simply for pleasure--I'm an English teacher: someone who parses the aspects of a given text and hopes that understanding arises with an awareness of the way a short story, poem or a book presents itself, with how the interplay of literary elements constitutes a broader meaning for readers as thinkers. As a sometime playwright, I spend much of my time watching a play or movie in the analysis of its plot or characterization; the same is true for television, books and most other things I encounter as literature. I am usually engaged in a critical reading, racing the work to its end as if I were assembling a jigsaw puzzle in a darkening room before evening robs me of light. If I'm lucky, I get to the end of a work with an opinion about its value or at least a few ideas around which I can organize my thoughts. That, too, a form of pleasure to be had as a reader.
So as I started in on the first chapter of Rowling's Harry Potter series, it was not long--minutes, in fact--before I was noting word choice and the selection of characters' names, drawing parallels to Dickens or Wagner or Tolkein, and considering the influence of Joseph Campbell. It was out of these reactions that this blog came to shape itself as a body of commentary, first in my mind, and now on the screen before us.