Late to the Wizarding World: Book 1

Thoughts on reading Harry Potter for the first time at age twenty-three

It’s been nearly 18 years since the first Harry Potter book came out, and I can still remember the peak of the craze like it was yesterday: the year books were pre-ordered to my summer camp, and kids stayed up all night reading the latest book by flashlight on the porch so they could spoil it for readers who were too slow or whose moms had failed to pre-order copies for them (I joined the midnight reading party with my beat up copy of The Phantom Tollbooth); the year every kid in my building put scotch tape on the bridge of his glasses and dressed up as Harry Potter for Halloween (I was Anne of Green Gables, thank you very much); the year I played the part of Professor McGonagall in my elementary school production of Harry Potter (didn’t know who she was, but everyone told me the casting was perfect); the year I decided I wanted to write young adult literature too and create worlds in which kids would dream of living.

I remember the mania, but I wasn’t part of it. I’ve never read Harry Potter.

Until a month ago, How have you never read Harry Potter? is the question I’ve most often fielded (just ahead of “Why do you like organic chemistry?” and “What are you going to do with a Masters in Fine Arts?”). Here’s a short answer to the first question: My oldest brother read the first book to me aloud. I liked it. I waited for him to read the second to me, but after starting high school, he didn’t have time. Or maybe reading them out loud took too long. By the time I realized I’d have to read them myself, I was in 10th grade, taking three English classes a semester, and working summer publishing jobs that required reading all day as well. Now on break from my MFA at Columbia, for the first time in 15 years, no one is assigning me reading… so I’ve assigned myself Harry Potter.

You’ll be happy to know: I finished the first book in less than 36 hours.

The second in less than 24.

I’m now reading the third, and the question I get every time someone sees me with a copy of the book (them, bug-eyed: “It’s you’re first time reading them?!” and I have to apologetically explain how I’m late to the wizarding world): What’s it like to read Harry Potter for the first time as an adult?

Here is my attempt at an answer:

Sixteen years ago, around the time my brother was reading the first Harry Potter to me, I remember sitting at my dining room table, homework spread out before me and my older brother, Tal. He ran down his vocabulary sheet and asked me what a word meant.

“That’s easy,” I said, only in 3rd grade. “Stagnant means not moving.”

My mother, who had been making dinner in the kitchen was suddenly by my side, and she leaned down to whisper in my ear, “We don’t say that in this house.” She set the serrated knife in her hand down on the table beside me. “You have to be sensitive to other people. Apologize to Tal.” I complied, then asked why, knowing the other way around would be a mistake.

“What if someone said, ‘that’s easy’ about something you were struggling with? How would that make you feel?” my mother asked.

“Bad?” I guessed.

“Right,” my mom said. “Bad. You have to think about what you say and how the people around you will feel.”

I didn’t understand at the time, but I nodded anyway, gripping my pencil and shifting my feet under me to a more sturdy position.

On the first read, I definitely didn’t realize that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is all about being careful with words: Draco Malfoy’s first words to Harry Potter set the stage for a lifelong rivalry, Ron and Harry delay their friendship with Hermione when Ron says, within her earshot, “It’s no wonder no one can stand her” (which he said in response to Hermione correcting his pronunciation on a spell), Harry underestimates Professor Quirrell because of a speech impediment, Hermione often saves the day by saying the exact right spell at the right time, and in the climactic scene, Harry tricks Voldemort by lying (how many times is the word “lie” used in four pages? A lot.). The scenes in this book — more so than the others in the series I’ve read so far — seem centered around wording (what the characters say and how they say it).

Here’s my favorite, from the very beginning, when Harry and Ron first meet on the train to Hogwarts:

“Ron reached inside his jacket and pulled out a fat gray rat, which was asleep.
‘His name’s Scabbers and he’s useless, he hardly ever wakes up. Percy got an owl from my dad for being made a prefect, but they couldn’t aff– I mean, I got Scabbers instead.’
Ron’s ears went pink. He seemed to think he’d said too much, because he went back to staring out of the window.
Harry didn’t think there was anything wrong with not being able to afford an owl. After all, he’d never had any money in his life until a month ago, and he told Ron so, all about having to wear Dudley’s old clothes and never getting proper birthday presents. This seemed to cheer Ron up” (100).

When I read this passage for the first time, I did something I would never have done while reading as a seven-year old: I cried.

The beauty of this moment is that it’s so uncalculated. Harry doesn’t say something nice just to make Ron feel better (although that would have been commendable as well), he just feels moved to say what’s on his mind, and it is, at that moment, exactly what Ron needs to hear. If anything differs between how I would have read it as a seven-year-old and how I read Harry Potter as a twenty-three-year old, it’s this: I appreciate how rare that sort of moment is. It’s not just kindness — it’s when someone is (sometimes just subconsciously) emotionally-tuned enough to say the right thing at the right moment.

Just as Wingardium leviosa has one effective pronunciation, there is sometimes one exact right thing to say. Like when the first words out of my friend-to-be’s mouth were, “Have you read The Phantom Tollbooth?”; or when another friend said to me, on October 30th (when it seemed like everyone else in my high school was planning group Halloween costumes except for me), “I was going to dress up by myself, but everyone else is doing partner costumes. Want to dress up with me?”; or when my friend told me after I recovered from surgery, “my prayers are a little bit shorter now”; or when my brother sat next to me, helping me work through a physics problem, and he murmured, “Well, it’s not as simple as I thought.”