This weekend my Twitter feed reminded me of an important Harry Potter anniversary: 19 years since Bloomsbury published the first book in the series. It took another year for Scholastic to bring it to the U.S. as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and one more year after that for me to find it and start reading it with my kids.
Some book lovers shrug their shoulders and toss off a dismissive remark about “children’s books” when I mention J.K. Rowling’s famously successful series. And by successful I mean that as of 2013 they had “sold more than 450 million copies worldwide, making them the best-selling book series in history” with a brand worth over $15 billion, including the books and their tie-ins—movies, merchandise and theme parks (as Wikipedia informs us). But here’s what this college literature professor wants all novel lovers to understand: This is not kid stuff. These books are not the literary equivalent of a McDonald’s Happy Meal.
Harry Potter has affected our culture profoundly, and continues to influence how, what, and why we read. See this article and this one. And innumerable others. A part of me suspects that reading these books might even explain why younger Brits were smarter about Brexit than older ones.
I teach a course on Harry Potter at my women’s college in Minnesota. Courses with titles like mine (“Harry Potter and his Reading Generation”) are often cited in laments about how customer-oriented higher education has become, how we care more about pandering to and pleasing our students than about challenging and educating them. I’ll admit that I first taught the course in 2010 because a couple of English majors asked me to, and because, as a feminist teacher, I am committed to destabilizing authority, to learning in community, to taking students’ desires into account. Even so, I’m pretty sure that teaching Harry Potter affected me even more than it did my students.
It took about ten minutes of sharing a classroom space with readers who grew up with Harry to see the balance of power tip, to realize where the real knowledge resides. My students know Harry Potter, all seven volumes, thousands of pages, the way I know The Great Gatsby or Their Eyes were Watching God—chapter by chapter, character by character, intimately and thoroughly, the knowledge of avid book lovers. They know these novels from years of reading and re-reading those thousands of pages as they waited for the next book or movie release. I had to come into the classroom honoring their knowledge and de-centering my own—a good lesson for a senior professor.
Those first Harry Potter students were also more engaged and eager than any group of students I had taught in 25 years. When I offered them critical tools and questions, they knew exactly how to use them to deepen their understanding of the novels. And though few of the students in that class were English majors, they all knew what it meant to love these novels. Again, though we keep saying kids these days don’t read, more people have read these books than any other series in history. No other books published in the past 15 years even come close (see Kate Glassman’s essay in A Wizard of Their Age).
Right now I’m teaching the series again, this time at the request of the English majors in our program for women returning to college—women in their mid-twenties and beyond. They wanted to know why only the traditional-aged day students got to study Harry Potter. So here we sit in a night class, a seminar-style course for skilled literature students, reading about 800 pages a week, deconstructing and psychoanalyzing the texts, asking postcolonial questions, examining gender and race, exploring word origins. But these professional women, these moms and grandmas, these serious students would be just as happy to find a Hogwarts letter in the mail as any 13-year-old you know. They, too, love these books.
So happy birthday, Harry Potter.
Thanks for reminding me that listening to other people who love big books—from my nine and seven-year-old kids to those twenty-something students to the mature women in my night class—yields delightful discoveries and life-changing insights.
I like to remember that loving novels is what brought us together in the first place.
Still waiting for my own Hogwarts letter,
Professor Konchar Farr