Harry Potter and I have been on a lifelong adventure filled with love, magic, nerds and many late nights (we’ve gotten rowdy and drunk a few times together). And like most great lifelong adventures, mine started in my grandmother’s living room and involved Rosie O’Donnell.
My grandmother loved Rosie O’Donnell’s old talk show. I didn’t mind when she watched it; beat the hell out of soap operas, and it's amazing how bright lights and uptempo music will persuade a young mind into thinking it's entertaining and not just shrill. On this particular afternoon, she (O’Donnell, not my grandmother) had on a children’s-book author I had never heard of, pimping a novel I also had never heard of. Yep, Rosie O’Donnell had J.K. Rowling promoting either the second or third book in her expansive Harry Potter series. My memory isn’t that great, but it was definitely after the first book had been published. And in the decade since, you couldn’t have two careers diverge further apart than Rowling’s and O’Donnell’s.
Now, I was a really precocious kid and an avid reader. I knew all the popular books, and when Rosie started gushing on and on about how wonderful these books were, I was like, “Pffft, you also like Tom Cruise and Koosh balls. Your argument is invalid.” With a casual eye-roll, I quit listening.
I forgot about the books until a few weeks later. Again, I don’t remember the exact time frame because, well, I have already forgotten what I ate for breakfast and it's about noon. But whatever. We were packing up for a trip and my mom had promised my brother and I a new book for the excursion. Just to emphasize how big a nerd I was (am), I was excited about getting a new book. I didn’t know what book, just that I was getting something new to read. We drove down to the local Walden Books, where we started to browse. I was already past my Animorphs phase, so I didn’t have a go-to series. The lady behind the counter -- who I’m pretty sure still works there, though it is now a Borders and will make a reappearance later in this piece -- suggested this book to my younger (by three years) brother. What she held in her hands changed everything.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Wait, no -- Sorcerer’s Stone, right? It’s been a while with these stupid British-to-American translations.
Anyway, wanting to seem cool and educated (like all 13-year-olds want to), I dismissed this suggestion entirely. The lady behind the counter raved and raved about it: “The twist at the end shocked me and it’s so literary and magical!” I said I already knew the ending, the author spoiled it on The Rosie O’Donnell Show (which Rowling didn’t do, of course, but I was [am] an idiot kid). I thumbed my nose at the book, but my mom bought it for my brother anyway.
Cut to the flight. I already finished my book (or it sucked and I just quit). I was bored, so my mom passed me my brother’s new book (he fell asleep and hadn’t gotten to it). I cracked the first page open and right then and there...
I vomited all over it and had to let it dry out before attempting to read the first sentence. End of story.
Nah, that's not true. I loved it and there was no barfing. I read the entire thing on that flight -- it is a pretty short novel, looking back and considering the epic tomes of the later years -- and lo and behold, when I got to the big twist ending about Professor Quirrell (and come on, if that ruins it for you then welcome to 2010), I was shocked as well. My nonchalance at the lady at the bookstore was out the window; I was hooked.
I don’t remember when I got the next two books in the series, but it was soon enough, and they were consumed quickly. Trying to piece together the timeline, this was probably about late 1999 or early 2000. I say this because right as I was getting into the franchise, the fourth book was published and we picked it up on the first day. Not a midnight opener, but we went on the first day and the same bookstore lady was there with a tower of Goblet of Fires waiting.
Around this time was probably when the first wave of popularity hit. As a kid, Harry Potter was popular and grown-ups noticed, but it wasn’t a cultural phenomenon. Not yet at least. My friends and I were reading them and it was exactly like all the newspaper articles were describing it: Kids were excited to read them, and we loved it. I even remember getting into a quiz battle with a friend of mine about the books (I won, of course. I have an unusually weird memory where I can retain trivial knowledge, but more on that later).
And then came the movies.
I knew from the beginning that they were making big-screen adaptations -- Rowling mentioned this in her interview with Rosie -- and after the fourth book dropped they released the first movie. When the first movie came out, I was 14. Exactly 14, because it was released on my birthday and I went with my aunt and brother to see it in Charlotte (we lived an hour away so this was a BIG deal). And the whole way home we talked about what they left in, what they took out, and how we were finally able to pronounce Hermione’s name.
Do you see what’s crazy about that? I was celebrating my 14th birthday by watching a movie about wizards with my aunt and brother. Granted, that could be saying something about me as a kid, but all my friends thought it was cool. And that’s the thing -- by that time, for my generation, Harry Potter had transcended everything to become cool across the board. Everyone read the books, everyone saw the movies. Granted, a few didn’t read them but they were such a minority that their voices weren’t heard. It was a startling time to be a nerd.
From there on out, I was a true Harry Potter nerd. I didn’t become obsessive, I never wrote or read fan fiction, which is usually my threshhold for obsessiveness, but for the release of the fifth, sixth and seventh books, I waited in line at midnight. And there were people from all walks of life on those lines. Everyone was there: little kids with their parents, teenagers, young adults, adults, old people, etc. People wore costumes and all talked about the same thing. There was even trivia with the bookstore lady who sold me my first copy. And yeah, I got a totally sweet bookmark when I remembered the book Neville was given by the fake Professor Moody ("Magical Water Plants of the Mediterranean," FYI) ... Oh yeah, total Pwn My Life moment. But it wasn’t total chaos. I’m fairly sure no one was crazy enough to cry when they got their copies, but I do remember, clear as day, how happy some of the kids were when they got their hands on those books.
I saw all the movies on opening night or during their first week of release. Hell, I saw Half-Blood Prince three times during the first week and in the week leading up to it rewatched the first five with my mom, who had never seen any of them. And these weren’t “Hey, wanna go see a movie?” type films; these were “events” that involved “planning,” and it was a “big deal.”
And I loved it. It became a jumping-off point for so many conversations. “Oh, you like Harry Potter too? Let’s talk about that and see what else we have in common.” My first girlfriend and I bonded over the books (hell yeah, Harry helped me score!). Every time I went into someone's bedroom I nodded approvingly when they had all the books. When they had only part of them, however, I was worried for their health. It was very rarely that I met someone who never read them, and even rarer was someone who openly hated them -- and it turned out that I didn’t really want to be friends with those types of people.
But the one thing about Harry Potter that hooked me most besides the books themselves were the movies. Well, more specifically, the actors. Well, even more specifically, Emma Watson.
Now, I like to think of myself as a calm, cool and collected guy. I’ve met my fair share of celebrities and have never been the type to freak out or ask stupid questions. I think they’re normal people and while they appreciate the adoration, they just want to be treated like people too. I would throw all of that out the window and freak the fuck out if I met Emma Watson. I allowed myself that one celebrity crush and ran with it.
In fact, I remember the moment I knew that Emma Watson was going to be amazing. It was during the second movie (I was still very young at this time too and she’s only three years younger than me so it's totally not weird or creepy and ... why am I being so defensive right now?) when she ran down the Great Hall after being unfrozen and ran to see Harry and Ron. I was like, “Damn, that girl is cute. Gonna keep my eye on her.” And she has not disappointed. She hasn’t done much acting outside of the franchise, but she has done modeling, and for Pete’s sake, she’s at Brown right now! She’s at an Ivy League school instead of sailing around the Ocean with the shocking fortune she’s made from the films! How is that not amazing?
In fact, Harry Potter led to my favorite Christmas gift of all time. I was with my college magazine and we were doing Secret Santa. I opened my present to find an autographed 8x10 of a lovely Emma Watson. I was truly shocked and amazed. It was literally the best present and the best surprise ever. Of course, I double checked the signature against the official one online and it turned out to be fake, but who cares? It was the thought behind it that matters, and damn, was it a perfect thought.
I truly grew up with Harry Potter. He grew up with me. By the time the final book was released, I had graduated high school. I was working my usual shitty summer job at a lumber company, and my coworkers laughed dismissively as I told them that I would be going to the midnight release of the final book. They couldn’t understand it, but I didn’t expect them to. I didn’t even want them to understand. But I finally told them about the girls that would be there and that stopped most of their taunts. And as I read the final book, I realized that I had grown up with Harry.
In the final book, Harry is 17 but acting way older than his age. Granted, I was 18 at the time, but like every 18-year-old, I thought of myself as much older and in kind of the same boat as Harry. Every up, every down, I was right there with him. Harry Potter wasn’t the only thing in my life growing up. I had other hobbies and obsessions, other fads and tastes, but none of them has stuck with me like those books. And I won’t pass all of those fads and obsessions down to my eventual kids (nor would I want to admit to them about most of them for fear of embarrassment), but my kids will definitely read the Harry Potter books if they want to. And if they don’t want to read them, then I’m pretty sure they won’t be my kids after all and it won’t make me feel quite as guilty when I leave them at a gas station on the way to see the Twilight reboot.