For Banned Book Week, I’m Giving Harry Potter Another Chance

When the first Harry Potter book was released stateside, I was twelve years old. Now, for the sake of having some social context for those of you who were born into a world with a different New York City skyline than I was, Harry Potter caused some ugliness in several parts of America back in the day. I grew up in the ass-end of Mississippi and Harry goddamn Potter was some kind of bombshell to the isolated Southern Baptist world in which I lived. Reading for pleasure, especially reading fantastic fiction for pleasure, wasn’t exactly in vogue among young people. I know book people like to puff up how much more kids read during their time in the halls of their middle school, but for me being an avid reader was a social wasteland. You just didn’t do it, partly due to isolation from sources of new material and partly due to the artificial isolation from the outside world that comes with building a community on religious fundamentalism. Phillip K. Dick, J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula Le Guin, Ray Bradbury, they all had no foothold in that world outside the black trunk in my treehouse. Their pop culture saturation wasn’t great enough in the early 90s to seep through the many layers of parental screening and ingrained fear of change that lay heavy over the rural communities of southwestern Mississippi.

Harry Potter, though, was different. It was nowhere, and then seemingly everywhere. Immediately. All over the bookstores and libraries stationed, in any direction, upwards of eighteen miles away. Displayed proudly at all three Wal-Marts within an hour’s drive. All over the news our parents watched every night. Most importantly, it was discussed with great excitement in every middle school classroom full of kids bused in from towns with bookstores and libraries and more than one church. The simple saturation of it, the incredible presence it had, helped it to infiltrate the community. It had reached the same level of saturation as the harmless Hansen kids, something possibly deviant but so widely spread and accepted that policing it was difficult for any parent who didn’t straight up keep their kids chained to a lawnmower in the shed.

Once the book broke through the surface of my community, every kid I knew was in love with it, and dear God did adults hate it. My parents didn’t exactly care, but the parents of my friends readily fell into the furor surrounding the book’s supposed ability to summon Yog Sosoth. Or something.

I, much to my own surprise, didn’t care for the book. I didn’t dislike it or think it was bad, it just didn’t speak to me in the same way it did to every other kid. To this day, I can’t adequately explain why I could read the pages and recognize that the prose was good and the story was simple but effective and still not care.

As a result, I totally missed growing up alongside Harry and the gang, something many of my age peers look back on with a nerdy fondness. Now, at the beginning of Banned Books Week, I find myself recalling the kid/adult schism that the books created in my hometown as I sat in total indifference to them.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that on Monday a grown-ass man will walk out of my local library with a copy of the first book and walk briskly home to try to discover what he missed when he was twelve.

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Imagine, Envision, Interpret! For Your Own Sake!

*My* Captain Ahab always looked like Abe Lincoln. I can’t say why…

When I was still in grade school I spent about as much time reading and breaking down works of fiction as I did forcing myself to learn algebra or collecting bugs for my natural science lessons, and I think that did me a lot of good. We were encouraged to examine characters’ motives and what I would later learn was called subtext, and our interpretations were rarely called wrong. It was a strangely egalitarian, individualistic way of teaching literature and I attribute my continued love of reading in part to it.

It wasn’t until I started middle school that I discovered that very few people in Southern Mississippi are taught literature in this way, or that early. Many new friends I made had never read Moby Dick, or The Count of Monte Cristo, or any of the other old people books I’d grown up reading and picking apart every summer. More surprisingly, what they did read in class was not so much up for discussion as it was pre-packaged with the interpretations from the instructor’s copy of the textbook. It seemed like a very boring way to learn about a book. Or anything, really.

Years later, I find myself wondering if our capacity for interpretation and imagination is slowly being smothered out of us. There is a much greater emphasis now on being ‘right’ for the sake of filling in the proper bubbles on standardized tests, as well as an astounding amount of time devoted to the preparations for these tests. There is little room for interpretation or discussion and, increasingly, little room for reading at all.

Of course, in young adults’ spare time, on the internet, imagination and interpretation are alive and well. I discovered this not long after I discovered that literary interpretation did not happen in regular schools. While trying, trying, trying to force my thirteen year old self to enjoy Harry Potter. Perhaps, thought I, the answer could be found through online discussion. Perhaps I would enjoy the book better if I could find a list of why so many other kids liked it.

My God, the things I discovered.  The fixation, and the obsession, and above all the lengthy and varied discussions all over what at that time amounted to two children’s books, one of which hadn’t even been released in the U.S. yet. Friends I had known now for a couple of years, who had grown up either ignoring or being told to ignore the possibility of interpretation, discussed the books just as excitedly. And their interpretations were just as varied, just as individual.

In spite of my efforts, I never got into Harry Potter as a kid. Even though I could recognize that they were good books, for whatever reason they didn’t speak to me in the same way they spoke to seemingly every other kid I knew. However, even though I’ve yet to learn to love the books, I am forever grateful to Joanne Rowling for creating them and sending them out into the world to awaken the imaginations of minds the school system has too little time and too little money to do much with.