Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of the publication of the first of the Harry Potter books in Great Britain. Reading those books as they came out was one of the most enjoyable literary experiences of my life. One of my favorite memories of the series is reading Goblet of Fire aloud to a friend who was recovering from a back injury and getting to do my best Dobby the house elf voice. Another favorite memory is buying Half-Blood Prince at a bookseller’s in the London underground, as I just happened to be in London on the day of its release. And, of course, whizzing through Deathly Hallows to find out whether or not it turned out that Neville, rather than Harry, would be the one prophesied to defeat Voldemort (the ending I always wanted to see).
It’s not the ending of the series I really want to talk about, though, but rather the beginning, and how I came to be a fanboy of the series through my students challenging me to practice what I preached.
In the late 90s, when the first three books of the series had been released and the series’ popularity had really started to become a phenomenon, I made an offhand comment in a graduate seminar I was teaching. I don’t remember what prompted the comment, but I’ll never forget what I said, or what one student said in response.
“Nobody reads anything anymore but those Harry Potter children’s books!” was my expression of exasperation.
“Have you read them?” my student asked, and in challenging her professor modeling the courage of Dumbledore’s Army.
“Of course not!” I replied in Umbridge-like fashion.
“Well,” my student persisted, “haven’t you always told us not to criticize something we haven’t read?”
Reader, she had me there. So, in a more McGonnagall-like fashion, I told that class that I would, indeed, read the first book, so that then I would be entitled to criticize it to my heart’s content.
I read the first book and found it so intriguing I read the next, and the next. And reported back to my students that I had to eat my words and admit that I was quite wrong and that they and everybody else should read all the Harry Potter books they wanted. (Not that I don’t have criticisms–like, boys get to do all the good stuff in the books, but the Hermione-is-really-the-hero meme is good on that score). And how could I not appreciate the terrific boost to interest in reading that the series produced while the release of each new book created such excitement that kids and adults waited in long lines at actual bookstores to get them?
My real point here, though, is this: my students were right to hold me to the standard of don’t criticize something you haven’t read. If we all followed a simple protocol: read first, think second, respond third, we might be one step closer to the wisdom of Dumbledore.