Reading the Harry Potter series this time felt different than past times. I’m several years older than I was last time I read them, and this time I was reading them not just for fun, but to review for CBR (it makes a difference, I’ve found. . .). It’s also a time in American history when reading about the fight against the Death Eaters and their focus on purebloods is a little more uncomfortable than it has been in the past (I am not the only person seeing similarities between Voldemort’s grandiosity, vanity, and short-sightedness and a certain someone who is rather a lot in the news lately). Anyway, what I saw this time in the series was different than any other time. Yes, these books are still all of the things I said above, but they are also deeply, profoundly sad. How did I miss it before? Like most people, I’ve always loved the series for the fantastic world-building, the quirky characters, and the adventures. The Harry Potter books are fun, funny, exciting, and a wonderful escape from the drudgery of our Muggle existence. But. . .
I’ve known objectively, of course, that they’re also very sad. They’re about an orphan, who lives with people who don’t love him, who is destined to fight against an evil power much greater than him that he has no chance of beating. But whereas in the past I acknowledged the sad premise, the sad events of the books mostly didn’t touch me (mostly. . .RIP Hedwig and Dobby). Books can, I think, be anything we need them to be, and what I’ve always needed Harry Potter to be was simple, engaging, and fun. I’ve never required deeper emotions from it than that. It has always been a series that I read to escape, so therefore I wanted it to be enjoyable. Reading it more carefully this time than I ever have before, I was struck, again and again, at the absolute depths of misery and despair throughout these books.
Harry’s backstory is sad–we all know that. Raised by truly awful people who never pretend to care about him even slightly, it’s a miracle that he’s as well-adjusted as he is. But the farther you go in these books, my goodness, the misery. This may be the first time I’ve reread the first two since The Deathly Hallows came out, and it made a difference. I never thought there was much to be sad about in The Sorceror’s Stone, but now I know what Dumbledore really saw in the Mirror of Erised. Now I know that it’s only been ten years since Professor Snape’s true love died, and he’s been alone that whole time, with nothing to do but think about the role he played in her death. Don’t even get me started on Hagrid in The Chamber of Secrets. His mother left, his father died, and then he was kicked out of Hogwarts? J.K. Rowling does not hold back. And that’s just the beginning. The Prisoner of Azkaban introduces two of the most tragic figures in the series, Remus Lupin and Sirius Black, and The Goblet of Fire ends with a child’s death. And then in the last three books, the hits just keep coming: torture, terrible injuries, and multiple deaths (plus the backstories of Neville, Snape, and Dumbledore, all of which are sad enough on their own).
I don’t want to sound like I don’t like the series anymore, because I still love it. I think just knowing that I was going to review them for CBR made me look at them in a way I hadn’t before, and really think about them, and think more about the characters and what was happening to them. I’ve felt sad before when reading about Dumbledore’s death, but this time, I literally had to put the The Half-Blood Prince down for the night because I was crying so hard. I’ve felt sad about Cedric Diggory, but this time I felt so deeply for his parents (also, speaking of tragedy and The Goblet of Fire, Bartemius Crouch Sr. has one sad life). I’ve always gotten choked up at Dobby’s death, but now I also feel like Kreacher’s backstory in The Deathly Hallows is the saddest thing in the world–after the deaths of Lupin, Tonks, Moody, and Fred, of course. The series may end on a happy note, but these are not happy books.
I’m attributing this newfound sadness to being older and reading more carefully, but I do think that, as I mentioned above, the state of the outside world affects us more than we may acknowledge. Right now the U.S. feels like a breeding ground for dementors, no matter how much I try to avoid the news. I really am trying not to be too political here, but I just have to say that Mike Pence is Lucius Malfoy. THEY ARE THE SAME PERSON. This is a fact. (I could keep going. Dolores Umbridge came up with “alternative facts” long before Kellyanne Conway.)
Over and over this year, I have been confronted with the way that 2017 has changed the way I read. Books that used to be nothing more than a fun escape are suddenly heavy with meaning. Of course, any book may mean different things to us at different life stages, and so hopefully someday I’ll be able to get back to my simple, mindless enjoyment of children’s books without trying to figure out which member of Congress is most like Wormtail (it’s Ryan, if you’re curious).
Still, I enjoyed rereading these (for the most part–the middle of The Order of the Phoenix is a bit of a slog, isn’t it?) all in one go. It was nice to finish the year on something much-loved and familiar (especially since this series just has the best Christmas chapters). The characters are wonderfully three-dimensional, the magical details are, well, magical, and the whole thing fits together like a jigsaw puzzle. Bad guys either get redemption (Snape) or their comeuppance (Voldemort). The good guys take heavy losses, but they win the day. And through it all, a child who was mistreated and abused for most of his life, turns out to be principled, loyal, kind, and brave–a real mensch. I realize I’ve barely talked about Harry Potter in this supposed review of the books he stars in, but it’s all been said before. Harry’s role as the symbol of the existence may have started simply because he survived, but it became even more meaningful every time he fought back. He is incorruptible, and he stands up for what is right time and time again. Maybe I should have focused more on that, in this review and in my reading. Maybe in another year, I’ll be able to.
On another note, last year at this time I was questioning whether or not I wanted to continue doing CBR. This year, I know I want to do another year, but I’m thinking about scaling back to a goal of 13. I read a lot, but I’ve found that my favorite reviews are the ones where I’m able to really dig deep into what I read. Writing 52 reviews means, for me at least, that a lot of them are merely plot summaries and “I liked this/disliked this because. . .” Next year I’d like for each book I review to be something I really have strong feelings about.
End of the Year Summary
It’s not the end of the year yet, but this will my last review of the year, so I can devote December to reading absolute garbage without having to worry about writing a meaningful review (hello, The Nanny Diaries, my old friend).
Books read so far: 70
Books reviewed: 57
Favorite newly discovered book: I really loved Get Well Soon, but for the love of God, won’t someone please read Another Day in the Death of America?!
Biggest disappointment: I enjoyed it at the time, but in hindsight, definitely Al Franken: Giant of the Senate