Frivolous Introspection: Reading Harry Potter

Summer is here. At least according to my calendar. The official time would be 1:17 pm today. If that is by Grerenwich time, than with the minus 6 hours, it would mean that the solstice is about …NOW!  And as it is summer, and I have been genetically preprogramed to view the yearly cycles as school terms, the summer still feels like a time of reprieve. A time where the usual demands of everyday life are relinquished and the leisurely distractions take front row.

So given this fact that most of the year, my reading tends to be more serious (history, science, business and religion), my summer reading projects always tend a bit toward the popular. This year feeling a bit more special, I have taken on the challenge to read the entire Harry Potter (HP) library. I started about 2 weeks ago, and I am now engrossed in the first chapters of the 5th book (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) with only 2 more to go. I have to say that reading them is way better than the movies which now look to me like visual cliff notes. I have spoken to a few other friends who seem to have taken on the same challenge. It would be honest to state that we are doing this as the final installment of the HP movies is due out later this summer. I am also trying to serve as an example to my son that there are other things to do other than dally on the computer.

In the past, I have taken on the Phillip Pullman series that starts with The Golden Compass and last summer I reread some of the brilliant science fiction of Ursala LeGuin: The Left Hand of Darkness, The Lathe of Heaven and The Disposessed would top my list of her books.

I have always wanted to read the HP series. But the recent viewing of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows PT 1 clinched it for me. I suddenly realized that I had no idea why this character was who he was, and what the reasoning behind any of the films was. Now reading the books, I am being filled in on many of the stories behind the characters which are not completely illustrated in the films. I tried watching The Prisoner of Azkaban right after reading the book, and I could not do it. The movie was like a flip book of the original story.

Being that this blog is focused on a form of alternative and radical education, I am obliged to give you some of my insights as I write this.

To start, I have to say that I have the utmost respect for JK Rowling. I am not sure what help she had in putting this together, but I think the project is brilliant. The first book, Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone, reads pretty much like any other book of this genre. We are introduced to the boy character. The book seems to be aimed at the 10 – 12 year old market, and the feeling you get is that the intention was to continue in this vein. But somewhere along the line, someone had the genius to realize that the generation of kids who were making this series such a success, were going to get older with the release of each book. Subsequently, each book gets more serious as we progress into the rich world of HP. Where the first book is only about 320 pages, the 5th book tops out at over 800 pages. The worlds that she creates become more and more elaborate, and the trials young Harry has to endure become more and more serious.

I am not going to venture to interpret what I think the HP series is trying to represent. Certainly we can see from the 7th film, that the wizard world is moving into a Third Riech type scenario, with Voldemort being a kind of Adolph Hitler. What I do want to speak briefly about, is the educational world that surrounds Mr. Potter.

It is clear from the first book that Rowling has set the story around an English boarding school. That school is Hogwarts and is located somewhere in the English countryside. Not having gone to boarding school myself, it is hard for me to share intimate details, but one of the main ideas communicated to me in the books is that adults do not listen to what children have to say. And here is a confession: my son accuses me of this all the time. And it is true. This is a theme that shows up again and again in children’s literature. When are we going to get the message?

Reading the story, there is the constant frustration that Harry and his friends are never believed. Bullying by  a very nasty boy named Draco Malfoy, goes completely unnoticed, even supported. That children can NEVER challenge their teachers, which Harry often does, and that children should shut up and just do their work. They are never to get into trouble or be curious about what is going on around them. But the world around Hogwarts is SO interesting, that there is no other possibility than to be curious about it.

I have mentioned in some of my previous articles about media, that we are being given a message about our attitudes toward children. In my post on Donnie Darko, I ventured into how he reacted to the school he was in. I have covered this in stories about the Addams Family as well as Season 4 of The Wire. JK Rowling has created a modern fairy tale. Fairy tales have always been good therapy on dealing with feelings of alienation. Harry Potter feels like he is different, and his experience reinforces that. But the adults around him, with little exception, don’t believe him. We all identify with HP. We all felt like no one understood us. As a young artist myself, this was my life story. Going to art school was like going to Hogwarts for me. It was magical. In truth, I am moving past middle age now, and I still feel this way—like a round peg in a square hole.

Of course there is a cast of benevolent supporters around young Harry. Most important is Professor Dumbledore, who is a bit of a spiritual master for the boy. And he has many mentors around him, all equally odd balls, who do not fit the everyday norms of society, in this case the wizarding world. And as the books progress, many of these characters are tragically removed from his life. There are lessons for everyone here, if you are interested in learning them.

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” —Professor Dumbledore

Summer reading should be fun, and HP is definitely fun. I read the first 4 books in 2 weeks. I hope to complete the remaining 3 books before the film releases in July. I probably won’t write another story about it. But I will see you at the movies for the last installment which looks very intense. I like to envision myself sitting on a beach, somewhere on Cape Cod, spending leisurely afternoons reading my book, with the sound of the waves breaking in the background. There are seagulls overhead and the air is warm and refreshing. But alas, I am here in Brooklyn, and there is a cool breeze coming through the window, and my workload is almost naught, so I am content to read the books whenever I can. It is way better than television.

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