You Need To Read Harry Potter
On July 21st in 2007 I sat in a park in a wealthy Dallas suburb watching a Harry Potter movie. It was almost like being at a drive-in theater, except me and the 4,000 other people sitting in the lawn didn’t care about the actual movie. It wasn’t the main event of the evening.
Roughly 4,000 Harry Potter acolytes of all ages, shapes, and sizes had gathered in this park on a warm summer night in North Texas so they could get their hands on the book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows at midnight. Nearly every single one of us was dressed up as some character from the series or another, and we were all hoping for our own personal version of the Hogwarts Express to show up so we could find ourselves back in that magical world.
Think about that for a moment.
Midnight movie releases aren’t anything new. They’re something almost all of us have done at some point or another. It’s a way for fans to signal to one another that some story means so much to them that they are willing to forgo sleep and their normal routine in order to be amongst the first people in the world to catch the next chapter of the universe they love so dearly.
But a midnight book release? That’s an entirely different beast. Pre-orders aren’t anything new, but picking up a brand new book at midnight when it’s basically a given that everyone is going to rush home and sacrifice sleep just so they can be transported into the imaginary world that some author has built signifies something very serious about that book or series.
It signifies that the creator of that world has tapped into something so deeply ingrained within all of us that we barely knew existed that we can’t bear the thought of waiting to get our hands on it.
Why are we talking about Harry Potter?
After I published my reading list of 2016 I’ve gotten a flood of questions for book recommendations, etc. And in the course of those conversations I’ve been able to have with readers, Harry Potter has come up quite a bit.
But just having the same conversation with 45 random readers about why they need to read Harry Potter would be one thing. During this time, I’ve seemingly met random people in all walks of life, and Harry Potter has become a point of conversation countless times. More often than not, it’s these people not having read Harry Potter.
Which, honestly, is something that bothers me. Hence me spending 3,000+ words on the topic.
Why You NEED to read Harry Potter if you consider yourself a good person.
J.K. Rowling’s publishing of the Harry Potter series during our lifetime is a gift that I don’t think many people truly recognize or appreciate. We are privy to be exposed to a work of creative genius that will go down as one of the greatest achievements in literary history.
You can argue that they were children’s books, that your favorite fantasy series is better, or that you have the milquetoast personality of a plain white wall, and are therefore incapable of enjoying anything great in life.
It doesn’t matter your excuse. Centuries from now we will see the Harry Potter series sitting firmly on bookshelves next to timeless classics like The Epic of Gilgamesh, Beowulf, The Bible, and Lord of The Rings. And for that reason, you owe it to yourself as a citizen of the world to expose yourself to the cultural tour de force that is Harry Potter. To willfully ignore this cultural phenomenon is deciding that you would rather not understand something deeply ingrained within your fellow human beings, and yourself. And that is an egregious error on your part.
Sound hyperbolic? Good. You need to start recognizing just how important this series is for a number of reasons. Yes, reasons as in plural. And we’re going to look at them point by point.
Recreational reading was dying amongst children. With the publishing of this series, that has changed.
The number of children reading for pleasure was rapidly dropping prior to 1997, the year The Sorcerer’s Stone (Philosopher’s for my British friends) was published. This means that children weren’t reading for pleasure, so they weren’t being exposed to stories, the written word, and the lessons that come from reading like previous generations.
Sure, plenty of kids probably watched movies or TV. Especially with movies and TV getting better thanks to technology increasing the quality of the programming. And these are great mediums for telling stories, there’s no doubting that fact.
But there is truly nothing that replaces reading. Reading a book is irreplaceable when it comes to exposing yourself to new ideas, lessons, or exposing yourself to stories. Reading is getting an intimate experience with the soul of that author, unlike any other medium.
That author has given away hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of their life in order to create the final product. It was a labor of love that they suffered for. Just so you can have the chance to have your entire world changed forever.
Reading instills a certain level of discipline required to get through a few hundred pages that will bode well for one’s life. It’s delaying gratification, and understanding that in order for the story you’re currently in the middle of to wrap up, you’ll have to put in hours or exposure.
On top of that, reading allows one to mull over ideas and quotes that you read. This now gets to happen thanks to the ubiquity of the DVR, but in 1997, that wasn’t the case. This ability to revisit things, mull them over, marinate on ideas and twists and turns in the story are unparalleled, and part of the reason why books are so valuable.
And kids were losing these requisite skills. Up until Harry Potter was published.
Ever since that first book was published, recreational reading rates in children have slowly reversed course. Meaning, that children are now reading more, which means they’re exposing themselves to more ideas, stories, and lessons to be learned that they can apply to life.
And if you don’t think that’s a big deal, well, check out this study that shows that people who have read Harry Potter are more empathetic.
Just because I know I will get this response, sure, you could just watch the Harry Potter movies. That’s obvious. But I would posit that by just watching the movies you are willfully ignoring a major piece of the Harry Potter universe.
The movies, which are excellent in their own right, eliminate characters, don’t give you access to Harry’s internal monologues, have stark character differences, are funnier, and develop the story as a whole far more effectively. Leaving you feeling like you just want to lay in bed and smoke a cigarette after you’ve finished them.
And now for the more obvious points. The story.
Harry Potter is a story we’ve all heard more times than we can count. We all know it. It’s deeply ingrained within us.
On the more obvious front, there’s the battle of good vs. evil, which is something we can easily identify within Harry Potter. Harry has to fight off Voldemort, and he brings us along for the ride as passive observers.
But a little below that is the deeply ingrained Hero’s Journey that Harry must go on. He follows the Campbellian monomyth of the Hero’s Journey down to the letter. Which is highly important, since this is legitimately the oldest story known to man.
Beowulf, Lord of The Rings, Star Wars, Harry Potter. These are classic examples of The Hero’s Journey. They all follow the exact same story arc and use an identical formula to tell the story of the main character.
At first glance, hearing that can be a bit unsettling. Like a big group of storytellers got together and decided they wanted to pull one over on the collective society. But that’s not the point here.
Writers and movie makers don’t get together and figure out ways to screw with the audience because they’re lazy. They all arrive at this formula on their own, and therein lies the true magic of Harry Potter.
Harry Potter gets this story right better than almost any other story in our modern age except for maybe Star Wars. And it’s done in such a way that it elicits a deep and visceral reaction within us. We find ourselves walking around as if almost our normal world is covered in a slight mist of the fictional realm.
Everything we do is viewed through the lens of Harry Potter when you’re in the middle of this universe. Every decision you make circles back to him. And that is truly the sign of a powerful story.
His own hero’s journey speaks to something so deeply ingrained within us that we see him facing the trials of his life and we immediately substitute ourselves into his position just so that we can imagine working through our own Hero’s Journey.
It serves as entertainment, an inspiration, and a roadmap in how to live our lives and handle the trials we will inevitably face within our life.
This is the magic of the Hero’s Journey. Deep within we know exactly how this story is going to end, but we can’t help but be entirely caught up in it anyways. And to me, that speaks volumes about what this story arc means to us. It means that fear, suffering, redemption, and victory are things that we not only love to hear about, they’re things we desire in our own lives.
From this point on most of the focus is on book five, Order of the Phoenix and the applicable lessons you can take from that book, and the rest of the series. I love all seven installments in the series, but at this point in my life I’m particularly enamored with this point in the series, and after reading, I think you will be as well.
When Harry flips the switch.
When I first read Order of the Phoenix it was actually my least favorite book. I wasn’t a huge fan. It felt like it drug on a bit too much, and the entire time Harry seemed unreasonably angry. I’ve since read the series a total of 4 times and seen the movies at least 10. To say my opinion has changed would be a big understatement.
You see, in the series, up to this point, Harry is still a child for the most part. Harry has had to deal with Voldemort in some form on multiple occasions, and it seems like it’s still unclear to him as to why he has to go through all of this. Why him? Why is it he who Voldemort is after?
In book five Harry has the newly returned Voldemort to deal with. But The Ministry of Magic has decided that they’d much rather bury their head in the sand than deal with the gravity of the situation. As such, they launch a smear campaign against Harry and Dumbledore in order to undermine them.
The poetic aspect of this cannot be understated. Just when Harry thinks his life couldn’t have possibly gotten worse thanks to meeting a newly risen Voldemort in the cemetery, not only does nobody choose to believe him about his return, they choose to castigate Harry and call him a liar. Effectively making his life even worse.
But it is at this point that Harry not only becomes acutely aware of his situation in life, he takes ownership over it. He recognizes his agency and recognizes that he can sit around and ask questions all he wants, but this major problem that is afflicting all of those in the magical (and muggle) world must be dealt with, and he has to deal with that. Nobody else.
Sure, he’s a bit of an angsty teenager during this whole process, but part of the reason behind that is he is locked in a constant battle with Voldemort over the control of his own mind. You’d be pissed off too if the most powerful Dark Wizard in history was fucking with your head.
This is a powerful point in the series, and it’s a point that all of us, in turn, learn from.
We’re all fighting our own battles, and at times those very battles might feel like they’re the Dark Lord himself. Harry deciding to take ownership of his situation is a great example of what we must, in turn, do with our own lives.
There’s little doubt that we can all decide to be passive actors in each and every situation we find ourselves in. We can decide we don’t really care to do much about our situation. That is an option that all of us have. It’s an option that Harry had.
Had Harry chosen not to act on his lot in life, he undoubtedly would’ve died. And the same will happen to you if you choose to remain passive. You may not die a literal death like Harry would’ve. Your death might be metaphorical. But make no mistake, some piece of you will die should you decide not to take control of your current situation.
Umbridge, The Ministry, and Social Commentary
One of the most memorable characters from book five is Dolores Umbridge. A Cornelius Fudge kiss ass whose sole goal in life is to follow every single word from the Minister down to the letter. This works out to Umbridge’s favor in the short term, as she’s appointed to Hogwarts High Inquisitor, effectively replacing the missing Dumbledore (though he made an amazing exit.)
Most of this is done out of stark reaction from the Ministry and their fear of the potential return of Voldemort. Instead of facing this major threat to their existence head on, recognizing their situation, and taking action they choose to go a completely different route and turn a blind eye.
If you’ve ever ignored a looming problem in your life for far too long, you know exactly how this sort of situation plays out.
Their fear leads them down an entirely different path. The institution as a whole begins overreaching with their powers and trying to create a false sense of reality in which everyone is safe from the dangers of Lord Voldemort.
Umbridge begins limiting speech, censoring magazines the students can read, taking books from kids, forcing students to submit to questioning, and a host of other egregious encroachments on freedoms.
All of this in hopes to protect the students from what she and Ministry view as dangerous ideas. The theory being that if they protect the kids from something that blatantly disagrees with the approved message, they will actually be protected from reality itself. Which, unfortunately, is not how the magical world or our world works.
Now, it can be very easy to say that this stuff happening within a vacuum at a school isn’t the worst thing in the world. But if you’ve read the books or seen the movies you know that’s not the full story.
Umbridge and her overreaching authority are really setting an example for how the Ministry feels as a whole. Umbridge is essentially functioning as a mouthpiece for the Ministry and carrying out their demands, just on a smaller level. It’s nothing more than a microcosm of society. Much like universities that severely limit the speech of students, or go above and beyond to offer safe spaces.
When you attempt to protect anyone and everyone, you run the risk of protecting no one.
It shouldn’t take a great leap to see how this relates to some former fascists regimes that have come into power during the 20th century. But if you’re a student of the books, you might also recognize the ability to try and protect everyone by creating a false sense of reality and protecting people’s feelings and the current world that we live in.
The modern world, in part thanks the rapid adoption of the Internet and social media, has become addicted to news, information, and the quick dopamine hits we get from checking Facebook. Which, ironically, is probably where you found this article.
But with that rapid adoption, more people have been given a voice, and this means more people are allowed to speak up if they have their feelings hurt. Going as far as to demand serious recourse should they have their feelings hurt by something that may be an uncomfortable truth within the world.
This doesn’t mean that people who lodge complaints on social media are wrong. There’s no doubt that we live in a world that is full of injustices. Racism is still a very real thing that we have to deal with. Just as sexism is. And I will openly say that as a heterosexual white male, I have it easy in our modern world.
And these points aren’t about racism, sexism, discrimination or anything of the like. Those are very serious issues that need addressing, and unfortunately, at times it does feel like we’re going backward on some of those very important issues that are very near and dear to my heart.
So before anyone wants to willfully misinterpret this I will stop you right there. I will staunchly say that I fully believe people should be able to marry whomever they like, overt racism is one of the most egregious things that takes place in the 21st century. But even if you’re not an overt racist, there are probably ways you’re unwittingly practicing tenets of racism. If you’d like a great read on the topic, pick up Ta-Nehisi Coates book Between the World And Me.
But I will also say that we should let the actions of Umbridge and The Ministry be an example for us. Should we keep trying to protect everyone, we will, in fact, be protecting nobody. By trying to protect everyone from the speech and actions of those that they disagree with we remove one of the most foundational aspects of the human experience. The ability to disagree, and then learn and grow.
Spending all of our time around people that we vehemently agree with and share the same beliefs with is like living in a barren wasteland of ideology. You become terrified of venturing outside of your barren wasteland and eating from the tree of knowledge because getting there might be intermittently painful.
And this is a dangerous precedence that I think we are slowly moving towards in the modern world. Just as Harry, Ron, and Hermione saw that there is a difference between standing up for what is right and overreaching, the same exists in our world.
Harry recognized what was going on. He knew what his truth was, and he knew that it was going to be up to him in order to top Voldemort. Even if it meant potentially being expelled from Hogwarts. And he gave zero fucks about it.
I encourage you to search deep down for your own truth. Because when you have your truth, it’ll be far easier to stand up for it. Even when it seems like you’re fighting against the entire system.
You probably don’t want to read Harry Potter because you’re too busy reading self-help, personal development, business, or some other nonfiction type book that you’ve fooled yourself into thinking is a productive use of your time.
And you know, some of them very well can be. There are more books than I can count that are in those genres that have shifted my thinking for the better. But after a certain point, they all start to blend together a bit. You can only pull so much from the same well.
While we’re at it, I’ll also let you in on a little secret: humans learn best through stories. Stories are the oldest version of learning that exists, and they function as a way for us to learn and grow, unlike any other medium.
You can have all the information in the world, but if you haven’t been given a roadmap in how to use that information, you’re hopeless. Stories, specifically The Hero’s Journey, provides that very roadmap. And that’s why fiction can be so incredibly valuable.
They’re entertaining stories that bleed deep into your subconscious and teach you things about both yourself and your life that you wouldn’t have been able to experience in any other way. Not even if you read every single Malcolm Gladwell book ever written.