Today is Harry Potter’s birthday, or so I am told. It was on this day last year that I found myself at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando’s Islands of Adventures, nestled between Jurassic Park and Seuss Landing.
For many people, July 31 is, apparently, a very exciting day to be at Wizarding World. I watched tourists cry upon sight of Hogwarts — and while crying in a theme park is pretty much par for the course (I also saw children sobbing while taking a picture with The Cat in the Hat), the people at Wizarding World were adults. They had paid for this trip with a credit card. They had taken off work to be here. Even the friend I was with, an otherwise reserved law student, shed tears. I looked at her and asked, “That’s where they went to school, right?”
For many people my age (23 — only six years older than the U.K. release of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone), the Harry Potter series tracks their life. The books have sold about 450 million copies worldwide, making them the best-selling series in history. They have been translated into 67 languages. The last book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, is the fastest selling book in history (11 million copies in just the first day). The films are currently the highest grossing franchise, beating out Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings and the James Bond movies. And yet I’ve managed to never read a Harry Potter book or see a Harry Potter film.
I do know the basic outline of Harry Potter’s plot and even some of the more specific details. I can, for instance, tell you that there is a character named Sirius Black and that he can take the shape of a dog, but I cannot tell you what breed and I am unsure if shapeshifting is the norm in Harry’s world or if Sirius Black is special. I know who Lord Voldemort is and that I should not have just written his name, but I’m fuzzy on exactly why not. I even know how the series ends — spoiler alert? — with Hermione and Ron getting married and Harry marrying Ron’s little sister (whose name I do not know) after killing Voldemort (how he killed him is also a mystery). The fact that I could know all of that just by existing in 2014, by watching Parks and Recreation, and SNL (see below), and The Office (ditto), by attending parties or simply just leaving my apartment to talk to people, points to why this particular pop culture blindspot is such a social hinderance.
The fact that I haven’t experienced any part of the series is not at all noteworthy; after all, everybody has an iconic book, band, film or TV show that they haven’t read, listened to or watched. (I have a friend who, despite being a 23-year-old female who grew up in America, cannot name a single Spice Girl; “Sexy Spice?” she recently tried.) However, the difference between other examples and Harry Potter is that those examples are mere cultural sensations, while Harry Potter defined a generation. For many of my friends, their favorite childhood memories involve staying up all night with a copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire or painting a lightning bolt on their forehead for a midnight showing. The majority of my female friends cite Hermione Granger as their first feminist role model, and I have more than one male friend who has admitted that their earliest of virile thoughts were directed at Luna Lovegood. These are people who can talk for hours about the seven books only to then spend several more hours discussing the eight films. I, as well as the others who’ve managed to avoid the series (as far as I know, I’ve met only three), cannot contribute to these conversations. By only understanding a vague outline of Harry Potter, jokes and references fly under my radar and all theories are lost on me. When my peers, flush with nostalgia, emphatically describe how Harry Potter changed their lives, showed them what empathy was and how love can conquer over hate, I sit and smile.
When I was younger, my lack of Potter knowledge was a badge of honor that I wore with smug pride. This was back in high school, when I dyed chunks of my hair blue and refused to apply to any college with an active Greek life. When I went to college, I began to understand that this thing — this phenomenon that was made up of midnight book releases, and dressing up to go to the movie theater, and locking yourself in your bedroom to read about “The Boy Who Lived” — created a community that I would never get to be a part of. Rather than feeling lurid self-satisfaction for “being an individual,” I was overcome with a very quiet, stomach-level sense of loneliness.
In her essay “How Harry Potter Shaped a Generation,” Caroline Siede discusses how when she went to college she felt “an instant connection” to those who loved the series. “Despite coming from different places in the country, we were united by Harry Potter,” she writes.
The first time I witnessed this particular breed of companionship was during orientation week at Emerson College in Boston. I was at an illegal (by our college’s standards) dorm party. The evening began with the party’s host reciting, word for word, the entire first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. People sat around checking for accuracy, hoping to catch him miss a conjunction or an adjective, but he was on point. When he finished, everyone applauded, and I did, too, though I was conscious that we were applauding for different reasons. (I was clapping because memorizing such a large amount of text is impressive.) Later that night we watched Wizard People, Dear Reader, an authorized retelling of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by comic book artist Brad Neely. Everybody in the room laughed. Again, I followed suit, and again, I sensed that my reaction was coming from a different place. These were not the characters I grew up, and it occurred to me that my intentional detachment from this particular piece of pop culture created an unintentional detachment from my peers.
I spent the bulk of my freshman year feeling not quite sad, but aloof and alone. To blame this entirely on Harry Potter would be too simple, but I do honestly believe that my lack of knowledge of or interest in the series played a strong part in my isolation. Harry Potter came up time and time again, and my response choices ranged from smiling, to nodding, to nodding and smiling.
Part one of the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows film came out the summer after freshman year, and I felt something vaguely similar to regret regarding my inability to participate in my friends’ excitement. I say “vaguely similar to regret” because it was not quite regret: I did not wish I had grown up reading the series. Even as I grew older and shed my superior attitude about having not read the series, I still had no interest in picking up the first book. Frankly, it does not seem like a story that would interest me. (Don’t get this confused with my saying that it does not seem like an interesting story, because it does — just not one that I’m particularly compelled to read.) No, what I regretted wasn’t having missed the series growing up, it was that the scope of this series was so huge, so life-changing for so many people, that my lack of interest and subsequent lack of knowledge affected my ability to interact with people my age.
Now that I’m no longer in college I experience “it” — the unsettling feeling of loneliness that rises up to the surface whenever I’m in a group discussing Harry Potter — less frequently, but a few weeks ago, I was at a party where the series was brought up again. “When I was dating my boyfriend he always said that I was Gryffindor,” a girl said. “But then, after we broke up, he said I was a Slytherin.” I laughed along with everybody else. I knew this was funny. I just did not know why.