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March 19, 2008

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---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Wed, 19 Mar 2008 20:04:57 EDT
Subject: [vel] life after Harry  Potter

From the issue dated March 21, 2008

Little Muggle ISO Her Next Hogwarts


  Last summer we sat in a walk-in campsite in the mountains — two 11-year-olds 
and two middle-aged English professors, with four copies of Harry Potter and 
the Deathly Hallows. It took skill and management from the adults and a lot of 
self-control on all of our parts to allow us to finish all at one time. But 
none of us really wanted it to be over.

"I feel like someone close to me has died," sobbed our daughter, who couldn't 
decide whether to start all over or "go home and burn all my Harry Potter 

And as we told her that yes, it was indeed as if someone had died, we didn't 
tell her that the someone was her young self. Instead, we encouraged her to be 
angry and sad and to wait it out. Neither of us wants her to hurt. But we 
both love that she can feel so deeply, not the loss of a character — anyone can 
cry at the death of Little Nell or Old Yeller — but the loss of something 
bigger, the loss of an entire imaginary, a world, an ethos. What has that imaginary 
meant to her? Or to the 20-year-old in back of us in line at the bookshop on 
July 18 — the one who burst into tears when she got the book and said to us, 
embarrassed, "I just don't know what I'll do without them"?

It's not worth fighting with Harold Bloom or A.S. Byatt about the Harry 
Potter books' literary value. Whether or not J.K. Rowling made lifelong readers out 
of a generation of kids, she created, at least temporarily, communities of 
readers. And maybe it was that loss of community that was behind the tears of 
both the college student in the bookshop and our daughter.

There was a time in our daughter's childhood when none of us knew about Harry 
Potter. One summer day in 1999, we wandered into the University of London 
bookshop to browse the lit-crit shelves and pick up a new copy of the London A-Z 
book of city maps. When we arrived at the cashier, he asked us, "Don't you 
want to buy the Harry Potter?" We hadn't a clue what he was talking about. "It's 
Harry Potter Day," he said, as if that explained everything. It turned out 
that the third book in the series had been released that day, and it was a huge 
media event. It's hard now to believe there was a time when we wouldn't have 
known exactly when a Harry Potter book was being released, and it's funny to 
think that we left the shop without the book, having not read either of the first 
two volumes.

Thanks to the series, our daughter has learned not just the pleasures of 
reading but the different pleasures of varying approaches to narrative. The film 
version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was magic to her as a 
5-year-old, but it was nothing compared to the pleasure she then took in the book, 
first when we read it to her and then when she began to read it for herself.

Now she moves gracefully back and forth between the books, the new films as 
they come out, the old ones on DVD, the audiobooks, and various Potter Web 
sites — she takes her pleas¿ures from the full range of 21st-century media. She 
can explain with some sophistication what each medium can do best, and she has 
come to enjoy the literary criticism and, yes, the philology that comes out of 
the Harry Potter fan community. As she progressed through the series, she 
developed a hawklike eye for significant details mentioned many books earlier, and 
she parsed their significance with a skill we cherish in the college students 
we teach. Most of all, she has learned to be absorbed, to enter a magic world 
that has nothing to do with wands.

Our students are, of course, the Harry Potter generation. But is their 
experience of the books like our family's? Did young people reading the Harry Potter 
books collectively inhabit one of Stanley Fish's interpretive communities? 
Lecturing on Frankenstein to a large class of biology students last semester, 
one of us asked about the theme of wanting to conquer death: "Does that theme 
still appear in our culture? In any recent books?" she asked. No one budged. 
"Are you telling me that none of you read the seventh Harry Potter?" Hands went 
up, one by one, and a tall, scruffy fellow in the second row confided in a 
stage whisper, "I have the poster on my wall." The students then started a lively 
discussion of Voldemort's quest for immortality and what it had to do with 
Victor Frankenstein's feelings about his mother's death. There is something to be 
said for shared cultural references, as the Blooms, Harold and Allan both, 
would tell us.

For our family, too, the books are about community; they created a world we 
have been coming into and out of for years. Our daughter has one British and 
one American parent. All those hours of reading about London streets, castles in 
Scotland, and even Surrey suburbs; all the car trips listening to the British 
actors Jim Dale and Stephen Fry on CD reading the books; and even the films 
and their surrounding hype connect her to her English side, in some way to her 
English mum's childhood. Not that we would have chosen British boarding-school 
culture as our daughter's ideal entry into Englishness, but it meant a lot to 
us that she could see herself as English in relation to the books. Her years 
of hoping against hope for her letter from Hogwarts gave her one way to focus, 
in a good way, on her differences from the kids around her: having an English 
mother, being the daughter of academics, being a bit of a gender rebel, and 
any number of other factors that make her, like every other child reader of the 
series, identify with Harry.

The books have also given our family a lot to talk about. It isn't just that 
we know the difference between Kingsley Shacklebolt and Mundungus Fletcher or 
how to perform a summoning charm. It's that we talk and talk and still talk 
about the books. We share theories, but we also share intense feelings about 
them. We debate Rowling's skills as a writer, her debts to Susan Cooper and 
Rudyard Kipling, and the issues Rowling dramatizes. We have learned to talk 
together about emotions and ethics and politics.

First we talked about why a government might think it was protecting its 
people by hiding the truth from them. Then our daughter wanted to understand why 
we found the Ministry of Magic's security precautions leaflet, "Protecting Your 
Home and Family Against the Dark Forces," so funny. So we ended up talking 
about homeland-security measures and the color-coded threat levels and how 
parody is a different kind of humor from slapstick or wordplay or the other types 
Rowling employs. The grown-ups provided the historical and political context, 
but the child then took that information and ran with it, pulling out examples 
from other volumes of the series and comparing scenes. Those moments in which 
we need to explain things to her are rare, however. Much more often, she 
points things out to us — the reference in an earlier book to Dum¿bledore's family, 
or the significance of a character's being interrupted midsentence, leaving 
us without what will undoubtedly be key information later.

The books gave our daughter equal status in discussions in which her parents 
would normally have been the teachers. We have learned to give her space and 

But now it's over, or Rowling's part is. And we must get used to the idea 
that we're all less like Harry Potter and more like Petunia Dursley — Petunia, or 
"Tuny," Lily Potter's hopelessly muggle little sister who was, like our 
daughter, destined never to get her acceptance to Hogwarts. The tough job now is to 
transform the mourning for the loss of magic into a recognition that the 
Harry Potter books never were magic; they were imagination — and that's still 
there. Our daughter is already beginning to see that although life is not the same 
anymore because she can't expect more Harry Potter books, she can 
nevertheless go back to Hogwarts, and to equally exciting places. She is learning that 
when you love fiction, the mourning at the end of a tale will lessen but will 
never go away.

After all, one of us, and not the child, hasn't yet read The Old Curiosity 
Shop. Can't bear to be left with no more Dickens.

Paula M. Krebs and Claire Buck are professors of English at Wheaton College, 
in Massachusetts. Krebs also edits Academe, the magazine of the American 
Association of University Professors.
  Section: The Chronicle Review
  Volume 54, Issue 28, Page B24

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