The University offers a class through the Residential College called “The Trials and Tribulations of Harry Potter.” Each fall, its high demand makes the first-year seminar one of the hardest to get into. But would you expect any less? After all, it’s Harry Potter we’re talking about.
Like every other kid, I read all seven books in J.K. Rowling’s series — and with a surge of passion as I did so. New ones came out in the summer, right around my birthday, so it was always a magical stretch of anticipation and counting down. And when I would finally get my hands on the latest one, I always read it at a freakishly fast pace.
Out of everything I’ve read, completing “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows” is still one of the most strangely vivid memories I have of any book. I finished it in my backyard on a lawn chair, and when my eyes ran down to the last page, I stared at it with a hole in my heart, thinking, it’s actually over. I’ll never get to experience this again. I felt as if I was saying goodbye to old friends. It was heartbreaking. And in that moment, like a lot of other readers, I thought Harry Potter was one of the best things ever written. That it was the book — or series of books — of our generation.
But I was also a dumb kid.
Yes, Harry Potter has its place on history’s bookshelf, but it does not occupy the space or share the company you think it does — a realization that dawned on me as I continued reading books beyond that of the boy who lived: Harry Potter is not some untouchably magnificent creation. Is it a good read? Sure. Is it a fun read? Definitely. But I want something more out of the books I crack open and, more generally, from the art I choose to intake.
But most readers don’t, seemingly. Fun is enough for most, which is why books like Harry Potter can transcend their adolescent target audience and reach a large adult readership. Books are like TV now: a distraction, an escape, a place to let your mind go numb at the expense of quality or depth.
In that sense, Harry Potter is mind-numbingly good. That’s why the series still feels relevant seven years after the publication of “Deathly Hollows.” It’s got longevity — not that popularity over time implies true excellence (see also: Paris Hilton, or Pitbull, or the soap opera “Days of Our Lives”). The plot is well crafted. It’s a complex, multifaceted, generally tidy plot. But there’s more to a piece of writing than plot.
Rowling doesn’t know how to write a good sentence — not just stylistically, but grammatically. Many of her sentences get tangled in themselves and, if you take the time to really look at their construction, don’t make much sense. Not to mention that they’re filled with (unnecessary) adverbs, the part of speech she should have learned to avoid after completing the first story she ever wrote.
But this isn’t a critical essay in a literary journal. I can’t go through and close-read passages from all seven books to reappraise them in your eyes — plenty of journals have done that already. The larger point stands: If Harry Potter got an entire generation to love reading, what kind of reading did it teach them to love? Did it lower their expectations?
Or, let’s phrase the question another way: Did it influence kids at this University to enroll in a college-level English class about books geared toward 11-year-olds, but which will be read as if they were for adults?
Clearly, it did.