Thursday, 6 September 2018

Happy 20th (US) Birthday Harry Potter - A good excuse for a booky ramble...

Today marks the 20th Anniversary of the release of "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" in the US...Cor has it really been 20 years?
Friends, this is also a good chance to use this momentous book birthday for something of a confessional...

I most certainly wasn't in there at the start. Not in 1997 for the UK release. Not anywhere near the 1998 US release, in fact I had no idea who Harry Potter was until 2000 - when a colleague wouldn't shut up about the books and strongly suggested I read them.

Knowing my reading tastes, he surmised that I'd love the series to bits. He was of course right (irritatingly), but I wasn't going to give him the satisfaction of running out and buying a copy on the spot.

The year 2000 was a real fork in the road for me. I'd attempted (and failed) to emigrate to Australia, I'd done with college and was kicking around in a fairly rubbish IT job - but thanks to that fairly rubbish job I met a woman who completely knocked my socks off (and, later, said "Yes!" when I asked her to marry me, wow!) and it was actually indirectly through her that I finally read "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone".

Actually not because of her but one of her friends who loaned me a copy (the paperback edition of the very cover that heads this article).

Here's where the confessional comes in. I never gave that copy back. Now, for a book lover this is the most despicable treasonable behaviour you can possibly imagine. I myself have lost count of the number of copies of beloved books I've loaned to people and never seen again (3 copies alone of "The Dark Knight Returns" - which isn't a cheap graphic novel by any means!)

I read "The Philosopher's Stone", polishing it off in the space of one night. I read it again, and again and then figured I should get my lazy butt on track and pick up the rest of the series too (as they existed up to that point).

These copies I bought myself, reading the three with the same voracity I consumed the first (and then, like every other Harry Potter fanatic on the planet, tapping my foot and waiting impatiently for each and every release thereafter).

Of course the movies arrived, and I watched them all. Then my daughter arrived...and even when she was a tiny little mite I was pretty determined there'd be a day I'd introduce her to the books (and films) too (in fact we've only just polished off The Deathly Hallows - yep it took that long to work through them all together, chipping away a little bit every night and every morning).

She now loves the books as much as I do, and is well and truly invested into the crazy world of Potterdom - joining legions of fans with their own favourite characters, favourite volumes in the books, and favourite quotes both from the books and the movies.

It's really hard to pinpoint exactly why we love them so much. For me, it's all about the characters (not necessarily Harry himself, and in fact I still think he's the least important / least likeable character in his own series), such an imaginative mix of different ages, genders, races and personalities. In an age where we're all aglow and celebratory about books that introduce huge diversity, J.K's work arguably kicked all that off a good 20 years before a lot of other authors started to understand and 'get' why it's so important for kids to immediately be able to identify with, perhaps even recognise themselves in their favourite books.

For me, that's also why I believe this series is so hugely successful. There really is something for just about everyone in the Harry Potter books and although my wife is still a staunch Muggle, I sometimes wonder if she'd be able to make it through the later books with a dry eye and a steely heart.

For my daughter, it's the appeal of Hogwarts itself and the whole wizarding experience. That sheer bliss in fantasising about a world that exists parallel to our own that really has real magic, real wizards and witches and real mythical creatures doing their thing while the rest of us cope with the daily grind. Escaping into fantasy worlds through books is something I've always done right from an early age and it looks like a lot of it has rubbed off on her.

It's so easy to be critical of these works - and you'll probably drown in the sheer number of opinion pieces on J.K Rowling as a writer, as the Harry Potter series as great works of fiction - both on the positive and negative sides. There's no doubt that the books are hugely derivative (certainly the early books owe a huge debt to some of the greatest classic authors such as Tolkien, C.S Lewis, Dahl and many others). They're not always brilliantly written (my god, there are some points in "The Deathly Hallows" where you actually begin to root for the Death Eaters catching up with Ron, Hermione and Harry and getting the whole durned thing over and done with mid way through), but taken as an entire piece of work - and the huge huge impact these books have had on books and culture in general, they will undoubtedly stand the test of time just as great works by the aforementioned classic authors have and shall.

As Hagrid would say "Hapy Birthday Harry"