Who's not reading Harry Potter? His peers.

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July 20 2007 2:49 PM

The Lost Generation

Who's not reading Harry Potter? His peers.

Harry Potter book cover.

I met Harry when he was 13 and I was 15. The third book had been released a few months earlier, and Lindsey, my best friend, had pressed the first one on me, saying I would love it. She and I had always prided ourselves on being early adopters. In our fervor for pogs, then Beanie Babys, then Tamagotchis, we saw ourselves not as teenyboppers, but as cultural missionaries to our rural school.

Harry arrived at an odd moment for me and Lindsey. I had gone off to boarding school the previous year, and the obsessions we shared had dwindled with the distance. So, when I came home for the summer and she said I had to read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, I had an adolescent response: I read it to prove my friendship.

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Even though Harry and I were about the same age, I was actually a half-generation too old to love him with abandon. Little kids were nuts for Harry; parents thought he was a godsend; young professionals were hopping on the Potter train. Yet there I was, potentially just a couple of classes ahead of Harry at Hogwarts, nestled securely in the age group least excited to read about a precocious wizard. One of the core tenets of youth is that you can only look up to someone older than you (which explains why only 13-year-olds will take advice from Seventeen).

Beyond my knee-jerk ageism, the words of my scruffy-but-wise English teacher rang in my head: "If I want merely to be entertained, I find television is the best antidote, not junk reading." Surely he would have recommended I spend my time on something more literary.

But my attempt at scholarly remove was thwarted when I read the book and the inevitable happened: I really liked it. Harry's world was a pleasure that was best appreciated openly and ravenously. After I finished the first book, I curled up on the back porch with the second, and the third, in the space of a week.

It turned out that Harry and I had a lot in common. He, too, went to boarding school with some great kids and some snotty ones. He, too, was misunderstood. These facts—along with that feeling of you-are-specialness that the parents and teachers of my generation were especially good at cultivating—led me to speculate that I too was a wizard in a world of muggles. If Harry's world was quaintly old-fashioned—with its owl post, its castles and trains, and that Britishness that gives everything a refined, musty air—it also felt like it could be my future: We wizards, we chosen ones, might be called to greatness. We might have to sacrifice everything in order to save something important, to uphold what we believe in.

It was for that feeling that I read the fourth book the next summer, even though it was longer than TheIliad. But I no longer felt transported. I couldn't conjure that heightened, messianic feeling that the early works inspired in me. And while I enjoyed the fourth book, it seemed at once to be both more frivolous and more melodramatic than those before. The fourth book was famously the first in the series to kill off a major character. I can't remember whether I was moved or not by the murder … which makes me think I wasn't.

After that, the books became less convenient. I was busy during the summers, and had found other favorite authors, and was caught up in my own adolescent crises, which seemed at least as traumatic as Harry's. The arrival of the books had slowed down, and I aged faster than Harry. The summer the fifth novel came out, I was 18 and packing for college. It seemed out of the question to sit down and read an 896-page children's book: I had to choose a meal plan and buy posters for my dorm room. You could argue that Harry was dealing with far graver issues than I was, but that doesn't change the truth: Harry and I had grown apart.

And as the media blitz went on and on, summer after summer, I started to have the feeling that I was reading over America's shoulder, and she had already underlined all the best passages. That countercultural response is more familiar to me now, but at the time, I just felt fatigue. I wanted to read, not be a part of a phenomenon.

Now that the final book is almost here, I find myself wondering how Harry has grown up. He's graduating from Hogwarts a year after I graduated from college, and I worry about the shock he'll face when he has to enter the real world (provided he makes it through the final book alive). I wonder how Harry will pay his rent. I hope that Harry and Ron and Hermione will all find jobs in the same city. Will he become a consultant in magic management, or will he win a fellowship to study muggle/wizard relations in Mongolia?

With all these possibilities for young Harry, I'll be disappointed if he is killed off in this final installment. Not only because he's a good guy, but because things are just starting to get interesting for him. The older I get, the less life feels like a battle pitched between good and evil. Instead, the triumphs and humiliations of living take on new range and depth. I still find myself making silent pledges to uphold something. The difference now is that the thing I'm upholding isn't the Future of Civilization, but something more like decency.

I now realize what I didn't get at 14, or even at 20: I am a full-blood muggle. Everyone I know is a muggle. Even my heroes are muggles. Most of us live regular sorts of lives, without benefit of spells or potions to cure our problems. The real fantasy of these novels was not a world where magic exists, but a world in which we were all chosen ones.

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