What you learn reading 'Harry Potter' for the first time in your 20s
One of the many varied and wonderful things about the Harry Potter series is the fact that it can be enjoyed by readers of all ages. Sure, the first two books are aimed at children, but they contain information essential to the story, they’re beautifully written, and they don’t talk down to kids. They aren’t boring — they’re exciting, comforting and pure.
I didn’t start reading J.K. Rowling’s books when they debuted in America in 1997. I was in high school then, and it didn’t even cross my mind that I could have anything in common with the 10-year-olds in cloaks and fake glasses that I glimpsed on TV. For a while, I actually thought it was “Hairy Potter,” and that it was something silly like “Captain Underpants.” And even if I had been interested, I didn’t have the time. It wasn’t until college that my best friend informed me that I had to read these books. They’d changed her life.
So I picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and I basically never put it down again. Now, I’m not usually into kids’ stuff. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with adults being into that sort of thing — it’s just not for me. I’m not a huge Disney fan, and I’m more likely to watch something about the history of Montana than the history of Hannah Montana. In fact, the Harry Potter books are the only YA fiction I’ve read. But at certain points over the last 12 years, I found myself reading them on a constant rotation, finishing the last and feeling compelled to start over immediately. I even preordered and stood in line for the last two books at Borders (RIP) release parties, surrounded by little kids in Hogwarts uniforms saying, “It’s levi-oh-sa, not levio-sah.”
But I wasn’t a little kid with a stuffed Hedwig toy. I was a grown-up; and although I love Harry, Ron and Hermione as much as children do — especially Ron, my favorite — I noticed details and made connections that I wouldn’t have if I were 10.
Harry often makes things much worse than they originally were.
This, of course, is part of building the story, but a grown-up is much more likely to see things this way. Beginning with Sorcerer’s Stone, an adult realizes that Harry makes huge mistakes by not listening to the grown-ups. Especially Dumbledore! Come on, Harry. I hate to say it, but Phineas Nigellus Black has a point.
Yes, he holds a major grudge, and he has plenty of nasty things to say, but somewhere during the first year, you realize he’s just not that bad a guy. We don’t fault Harry for thinking he is — Harry’s just a kid, and he hasn’t had a lot of guidance, and everyone has that one teacher who’s super extra hard on them that they kind of hate. Plus, Snape doesn’t exactly go out of his way to be likable; but still!
The Ron and Hermione thing starts super early.
By Chamber of Secrets, it’s obvious to those of us who’ve made it through middle school that Ron is way touchier about issues involving Hermione than Harry is; he gets angrier when someone makes fun of her; and he’s much more apt to give her the silent treatment when they disagree. (See the list of reasons J.K. Rowling is a genius — which, by the way, doesn’t exist because it would be infinite.) Kids ship Harry and Hermione because they’re the lead male and lead female, and even Rowling has second-guessed herself on Hermione’s eventual mate; but I’ll always think what’s published is perfect. When Ron and Hermione finally got together, it was more joyous for me than the marriage of Lizzy and Darcy. (That’s right. I said it.)
It’s OK that some things don’t add up and can’t be explained away with magic.
Witches and wizards can’t possibly only get money by physically going to Gringotts. The much-discussed population of Hogwarts isn’t clear. From midnight detention in the dark forest to the deplorable way Snape talks to his students, all sorts of things go on that totally would not fly with parents. Also, there’s no way it’s ever “balmy” on an average day in those parts, unless Dumbledore has somehow bewitched the weather inside that protective shell — which, OK, is totally possible.
So much thought has been put into the creation of names and words.
Rowling was a Classical Languages student, so most of her made-up words have real roots. The bigger your vocabulary, the better you’re able to predict a character’s true nature or understand what the author thinks of him or her. (Sirius and Lupin are two of the more obvious examples.) Even more impressive: most of the creatures and legends mentioned are mythical beasts and stories or real people from our world. From mandrakes to Flamel and Agrippa, real-world folklore has been carefully integrated into the Potterverse.
The baddies sometimes remind us of real people.
“Decent people are so easy to manipulate,” Barty Crouch Jr. tells Harry in Goblet of Fire. The villains — Voldemort and Umbridge in particular — exhibit textbook narcissistic and often psychopathic tendencies. Kids (hopefully) won’t recognize this stuff until they’ve been around for at least a couple decades, but grown-ups might think their scheming smacks of an old friend or coworker. In a lot of ways, Voldemort is essentially a cult leader-turned-dictator, and he manipulates people using the same techniques Muggles do. Again, Rowling pulls from Muggle history when she quietly places parallels to racism — particularly Nazism. It’s no coincidence that Dumbledore defeated Grindelwald in 1945.
You never grow out of that “maybe it won’t happen this time” feeling.
I’ve read the complete series at least a dozen times, but each time, I still hope Cedric won’t die, I still hope Harry won’t lead everyone into the Ministry of Magic, and I still hope Snape won’t come through that door on the astronomy tower.
In the spirit of the wizarding world, I’ll stop at seven. Once you’re a grown-up who’s written papers and experienced working a job and launching a career, you can appreciate just how incredible it is for someone to create such a massive, detailed world and follow it through without a single lazy patch or lapse of focus. How impressive is it when you spot a tiny, barely noticeable bit of foreshadowing buried in book one? Rowling didn’t need to include subtle hints and details that would likely go over a child’s head, but she did. Noticing these nuggets isn’t about intelligence, either; but life experience.
I’ll tell anyone who will listen, aged 6 to 100, to read the Harry Potter series. Sometimes I have to explain that the first couple books will seem a little juvenile at first, but by the time you’re through those, you’re hooked — and it’s absolutely brilliant that Rowling aged the writing with the reader. Plus, it makes sense: Harry’s life becomes increasingly complicated, and so the story does, too. Richer and more complex than most of the adult books I’ve read — even Stephen King is a fan — they’re still approachable and easy to read, and they really can change your life. They certainly changed mine.