The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13

Harry Potter and the Comment of Wonders

This comment from Robinson Meyer over on Google+ kinda blows my mind. We’ve been chatting about fandoms and Harry Potter, and Robinson says:

But the best part of Harry Potter, for me, came in the reading of the first few chapters of each new book. It was like meeting old friends. I’d discover every time that Harry and I had both grown up a little, had emotionally become more sophisticated, and that we also had that same old warm rapport and that same old love for each other. And, on top of that, I was back in Harry’s joyous world, the world that began when I was in 2nd grade, about to find out what was going to happen next! It was like seeing a friend for the first time in three years and picking up the conversation (about his more interesting life) right where we’d left off. It’s funny, but without a doubt reading the first few chapters of Books 5, 6, and 7 are among my happiest memories.

“[R]eading the first few chapters of Books 5, 6, and 7 are among my happiest memories.” That kinda blows my mind.

It also makes me realize that I had no comparable experience as a young reader. There was no fantasy epic being released/revealed as I grew up in the late 80s and early 90s. The closest approximation is probably Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, which I loved in middle and high school, but… well, yeah. If you know the meta-story of Wheel of Time you know why that wasn’t the most satisfying tale to follow along with.

Seriously, I can’t even fully articulate why—but I am sorta obsessed with the last few lines of Robinson’s comment. It’s almost a recipe. Engineer that, somehow, and you win.


I was thinking the same thing. I teach public speaking and once in a while a student will respond to my “speech of appreciation” assignment with a 5-minute tribute to Harry Potter, or bring a book or wand as the object they choose to introduce themselves to the class. I was a serious reader, but I never would identify with any franchise in this way.

The Babysitter’s Club got a lot of my allowance money, but it didn’t grow up with me the way Harry can. I also never had the kind of communal reading experiences Potter fans had. Sure, I’d tear through everything I could find by Madeline L’engle, and I loved the Enchanted Forest Chronicles ardently, but none of those passions extended past me and my best friend.

I think the experience of young Harry Potter fans now is more like the experience of young Beatles fans in the 1960s.

Is that an experience that will continue? For a reader who was very young when the first book came out, Harry approximately grows up with them. But if I was, say, 10 years old today, and picked up my first Harry Potter book, no power on earth could prevent me from gobbling my way through most of the rest of the series within the next two years, maximum. That’s how I tore through all other similar series, already published. The thing that was new about Harry was that his new episode, every year or two, was very celebrated and public, so the waiting and growing was a communal experience for a generation. That franchising is weird to our slightly older than Harry generation, b/c it was unprecedented, but it actually makes perfect sense: by drumming up community around the release of each book, publication becomes a shared and repeated experience. But now the Potter series is already all there and ready to go for the next generation, which therefore cannot consume it in the same doled out pacing. It’s sort of how I feel I missed out a bit on watching the Wire as it was coming out, partially b/c it does refer to contemporaneous events, partially b/c I cannot follow along with with the contemporaneous recaps for fear of running across a spoiler, and partially b/c I know I’m downing it way too fast. When I was teaching (and all the Harry Potter books were just finished) it seemed like the Twilight books and the Eragon books were the closest successors.

It does seem like a winning formula for a clever publishing house: your job, young editor, is to go find the epic writer who has the series which will appeal to the kindergarteners of today, starting just about when they are 9, and to design a platform to present that epic in communally rousing serial formats over the course of their growing up. A really savvy publishing house would invest in demographics research to launch such an editor/writer team approximately every 5 years. The corresponding kindergarten cohort would be their core audience, everyone else would be along for the ride.

I think you’re right, and I think that’s why I don’t share Robinson’s experience. And I don’t think kids just getting into it now will either.

Do you think a phenomenon like that can be replicated, though? I was inclined to compare it to the Beatles and I see in the original G+ comment Robinson compares to Star Wars. But I don’t think there has been a cultural phenomenon around another band or movie franchise like those, and I wonder if books can’t achieve it again either. Maybe because too many people are trying, now that they know it’s possible.

Maybe because too many people are trying, now that they know it’s possible.

I actually love this idea, b/c that means that more niche communitis are going to develop around epics more perfectly suited to them. Maybe the writers won’t get as filthy rich as Rowling, and maybe the communities won’t be as totally communal and global as the Potter generation, but the experience will be there, and will be refined.

The closest thing for me is Lois McMaster Bujolds Vorkosigan Series. I started ‘in the middle’ (Book 3: Warrior’s Apprentice) when Miles is ~ 18 and I was in high school. (I think adolescent readers prefer to read about someone slightly older than themselves. If I’m not mistaken, Harry is ~ 9 in Sorcerer’s Stone, slightly older than the 2nd graders the book can appeal to.) B/c Bujold started the Vorkosigan/Naismith world long before I was a teenager and because she didn’t write on a every-year clip, Miles effectively approximately aged with me though he grew up just a bit faster.

They are, btw, my favorite science fiction books ever. They are not as sophisticated and mindblowing as a lot of the ones we discuss here, but they are deeply warm and humorous and tragic, and a little subtle in how they take futuristic technology for granted and plunge directly into politics, romance, tragedy and comedy. I have definitely ‘become friends’ with her caste of characters, and am always hoping she will write another one from this or that person’s point of view, even the one’s I’m not so crazy about. I am holding the latest one, Cryoburn, in a reserve as a reward for myself sometime this summer.You can either start at the beginning, which has been omnibused (Books 1 & 2, Shards of Honor & Barrayar, are now printed as Cordelia’s Honor,) or go the way I did–first Warrior’s Apprentice, then back to 1 &2, then forward from Vor Game. There’s something to be said for that.

I think it’s going to be really interesting in the next few years to see how the Harry Potter experience translates to people who didn’t grow up with it–that is the people who didn’t live through the performance of the publication, who don’t have to wait a year or three for the next book, who don’t watch themselves grow up as the characters grow up.

Personally, I think the series is good enough that people will read it even when they can get the whole thing at once if they want it, but you’re right that there’s a certain kind of magic to being there as the series is produced, knowing that you’re waiting for the next book because it doesn’t exist yet, not just because it’s another couple of weeks before you get back to the store. I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if there’s an act of translation necessary among the fandom, between the Harry Potter natives, if you will, and the recent arrivals, who find that they each love totally different aspect of the series. πŸ™‚

It should be noted–in light of Saheli’s posts which largely pre-empted mine–that the phenomenon I’m interested in is participation and not necessarily identification. Harry is 11 when the first book came out in 1997/1998, and Rowling doesn’t keep to a 1-per-year schedule after the first couple of books. So I started off noticeably older than Harry, and he just falls further behind. Also, I didn’t start in until book 4 had been out for a while.

So it’s really not just about a core age group, and never was. And growing up with Harry is something that more than just 11-year-olds did. My girls haven’t read the series yet, but I’ve thought about rationing it out, but I’m just not sure how I’d do it. On the other hand, I have younger cousins who stopped at book 4, and came back later.

How kids read the book has totally changed. I’m working at an elementary and middle school camp right now (hence my belated reply to this post), and whenever Harry Potter comes up, a kid or two will beam and say something like, “I read the whole series in a week!” And that’s great, of course, and likely what I would’ve done if I were born a decade later. But it’s not nearly the same experience, and it does make for two different kinds of fan.

And Gavin, my family rations out the books to my two younger brothers. They get about one book every couple summers, so my 13yo bro is currently reading the sixth book, and my 9yo bro is starting the second book next week. It works pretty well. I’m sure both of them have heard certain major plot points by now, but they also understand why my parents and I have staggered their reading, and they try and protect their own lack of knowledge.

Very much feel the same as Robinson. I was 11 when the first book was released and have quite literally grown up with the novels. What I find compelling, too, is the question of whether something like this can happen again. Could anyone convince an author or blogger or writer to hold off on material, to sequentially release it at a consistent, staggered pace that build anticipation, loyalty, and fervor? It was unbelievably calculated, smart, and (arguably) pivotal to JK Rowling’s success… but also easier then than now (and it will only get harder & hard in the future) to put off releasing something valuable when there so many instant ways to reach people. Maybe like The Beatles, then, the next “experience” has to come on a medium that’s either new… or neglected.

I have more to add, but: yes, this! Perhaps because no one was paying attention to children’s books, Harry Potter could ascend. I think the *children’s* aspect of HP’s primacy is important, too: kids operate a vibrant oral tradition (think of playground games) and, between PBS and earnest teachers, live in a much more unified culture than adults do. Those big moments of contemporaneity Tim’s talking about are so much easier to create among kids than among adults.

The way I approached it on G+, and I guess I’ll stick to it here, is to think about Harry Potter (and The Beatles and Star Wars) in terms of compulsory fandom.

Sure, kids can dive into Star Wars again, and many do, and nearly all pop music fans find their way back to The Beatles eventually β€” but they can’t count on the fact that any and all of their friends are experiencing them as intensely, at the same time, and in much the same ways. (Even if you react against it, you have to have a position.)

To experience a giant cultural contemporary event with your contemporaries, so that it becomes part of what helps define your contemporaneity.

I grew up at the same time as Robin, so I similarly lacked an epic storyline. I think the closest was either the Dragonlance Trilogy or the (of all things) Robotech books.

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