It’s about 10 p.m. on Friday night at the local Barnes and Noble, and I’m walking down an aisle, chatting with C. A guy—and he is a standard white guy, in a solid, wrinkled salmon-colored shirt, frizzly goatee, and khakis—is staring at us, as if bewildered. C. and I pause for a second. The guy screws up his courage.
“Um,” he says, “is there something special going on tonight?”
“Yeah, man,” we say, “it’s the new Harry Potter book.”
Bewilderment turns into dawning comprehension: “Does that come out tomorrow or something?”
“Well, technically, yes,” says C. “They’ll start selling them at midnight.”
“Ohhhh. I was wondering. This place isn’t usually this crowded. I mean, I’ve been in here before. So, is this like a big deal?”
I’m not sure what tipped him off. Was it the 300 kids wearing black plastic glasses and waving glittery wands? Or was it the free face painting booth? Or the teenagers discussing, quite heatedly, the particulars of potions and spells? Perhaps, it was the unusually long line in the café, filled with purple-haired girls in witches’ hats and black robes.
I suppose it’s nice that there’s at least one man in Jackson, Mississippi, who obviously pays no attention to the popular media, to whom this night is one like any other. I mean, I’ve tried my best not to know anything about Brad and Jennifer, Brad and Angelina, Michael and the little boys, R. Kelly and the underage girls, or Tom and, well, anybody. Nine times out of ten, I’m the first to be cynical of a cultural phenomenon of such force.
But this is that tenth time. For all of Harold Bloom’s windbaggery against Harry Potter and the snide jabs from countless lit-bloggers, I actually think they’re good, often great books. Though occasionally she lapses into clichéd phrasing, J.K. Rowling is a delicate, graceful stylist and an intricate plotter. Her characterizations are so subtle and supple that they surprise constantly, and so deeply rooted that a surprise rarely feel like a deus ex machina.
But I’m a book behind. Somehow, I never got around to reading book 5, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. So, as I roam around the bookstore with friends, I’m afraid that someone will blurt out a plot point. Some random kid—maybe the one dressed entirely in black, with a hood and a sheer black cloth covering her face, with a sign hanging from her neck that says “Will dement for food”—will get too excited and say something like, “God, it was so awful when ________ died in book 5!” It’s a risk I’m willing to take. The atmosphere is giddy—everyone’s complimenting each other on their costumes; everyone’s laughing, often at themselves; the employees don’t mind that we’re sitting on the floor, leaning against shelves; some of us are playing cards and board games on the carpet. Tonight feels like the best Halloween party I’ve ever attended…
Rowling’s defenders frequently point out that, because of her books, kids are reading more, especially boys. I’m not sure how true that is—perhaps they’re just reading more of Rowling’s books. Really, it shouldn’t matter. I’m not interested in whether Harry Potter is good for children. Whenever anyone tried to foist eat-your-spinach literature on me, I hated it.
But the kids, and adults like me, love Harry Potter precisely because it’s not fit for ABC Afterschool Specials. Here, kids are mean to each other, and don’t always get paid back in full. Children die. People rage, love unrequitedly, get ornery. Rowling shares with Roald Dahl an inability to go soft for the kids, or to condescend to them. (She also shares Dahl’s dry, nasty wit.) The plots get increasingly convoluted and less simple in scope and moral depth.
But it’s not the plots, as good and well-conceived as they are, that hook us. The Monday after tonight, my co-worker will inform me that his daughter read the 600-page Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince over the weekend, and immediately started to reread sections. She’s not rereading them because of plot mechanics, to figure out what happened.
Rather, it’s that Rowling has created a living, breathing world that lingers in the mind long after you’ve put the books down. It’s her offhand, almost throwaway ideas—whispering snakes slithering through the pipes of a school; paintings that are animated and talking; a quill that cuts the same mark on your hand that you’re writing on parchment; a postal service run by owls; the use of fireplaces as a means of travel, like subways. What brings people to Rowling is the poetic, precise way she describes Harry’s first sip of butterbeer. (It’s so vivid that a man tonight asks me what I think butterbeer really tastes like.) It’s the fact that the school is divided into four houses, each with their own allegiances and traits.
At 1 a.m., I finally have books 5 and 6 in hand. I’m exhausted, and C. is driving me home. I’ll wake up eight hours later, and will plow through the first 350 pages of The Order of the Phoenix that weekend. But, for now, I’m looking out the window at the passing night and gleaming lights of Jackson. The night is humming but, through a car window and with the tires rubbing loudly on asphalt, it feels a little unreal. I’m groggy and I’m catching every other word C. and her cousin say. Everything’s ethereal, except for the two bricks/books in my hand. It’s to Rowling’s credit that, somehow, just at that moment, her fictional world feels more real than the one in which I live.