Until last week, I had never read a word of Harry Potter. Not so much as a trailer for one of the movies has ever crossed my screen. Considering that I’ve worked in entertainment and media for over a decade, that might seem surprising. But it’s not as though I’ve run screaming from 19 years worth of furious output from J.K. Rowling. The whole thing just never interested me. Why would I pick up — much less obsess over — children’s books? The truth is that for years, not participating in Potter mania felt like a relief. It left me time for other things — you know, like high school and college. Even when I was no longer reading books for class, there were so many others I wanted to thumb through: moody New York novels, or old classics I’d long pretended to have read. Choosing not to delve into a seven-part series about wizard children — a population in which I’ve never had the slightest interest — was a no-brainer. It still is. When Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone came out, I was 15. A friend of mine started reading the books with her little brother, who was 9 at the time. My brother was older and still dug The Lord of the Rings books. I thought The Hobbit was pretty cool in seventh grade, but I was in high school now. The Hogwarts kids weren’t even on my radar. When I got to college, though, I realised the craze reached further than I had thought. A group of my older friends, some of them fellow English majors, had caught wizardry fever big time. On top of the thousands of pages our professors piled on, they still made time for Potter. “Seriously, they’re meant for grownups!” one might insist. “So are adult diapers,” I’d respond. These are smart people. I never judged them for pre-ordering their copies of the latest release and staying up all night to tear through the story in one sitting. But I simply did not believe. Nothing could be that good, I thought. An all-nighter for the sake of binge-reading instead of beating a deadline was unthinkable to me. (These are also the same friends who’d lay down their lives for Joss Whedon, another obsession that’s beyond me.) We were just wired differently; I accepted that.
In case you’re wondering whether I A. have no soul, B. lack imagination, or C. prefer my entertainment without a drop of fantasy, rest assured: I watch Game of Thrones! I was True Blood-obsessed (until it went totally off the rails)! And don’t even get me started on Teen Witch. But my taste in fantasy skews, well…adult. (Okay, except for Teen Witch, but that is a damn good movie.) Game of Thrones’ sixth season gave us a twisted allegory of electoral politics. True Blood is Alan Ball’s flesh-filled crusade for tolerance — racial, queer, and otherwise. These are fantasies with something urgent to say about the world we’re living in. When my editor suggested I finally crack open the first book and report back, I was hesitant. I had come this far; why give in now? Then again, this was business. And I’d do anything for an assignment, right? As I was weighing my dedication to journalism, a Washington Post headline pushed me over the edge. If, as a new UPenn study suggests, Harry Potter readers devoted to the books’ themes — “the value of tolerance and respect for difference, opposition to violence and punitiveness, and the dangers of authoritarianism” — are less likely to vote for a certain flame-haired villain conjuring Dark Arts among us IRL, there must be something to it. And with obsession over the franchise still at a fever pitch nearly 20 years after the story began, I figured maybe it was finally time to give in — by degrees, at least. I’d see how far I got, for starters. So, I read the first book. In a weekend. And OKAY. It was...a little magical. Armed with a paperback copy on a weekend trip to visit my parents, I only dared pluck it out once safely inside the house. As the narrator detailed Harry’s life with the Dursleys, I yawned. When fanciful words that I’m familiar with by proximity — Muggle, Hufflepuff, Dumbledore — started to creep in, my eyes half-rolled off the page. But then Harry got to Hogwarts. Or rather, on the train speeding toward it, and I was transported back to my first day of college — sweaty palms and a heart beating with adventure, the thrill of instant friendships and rivalries. The houses were basically dorms, and the Sorting Hat was the Dean of residential life. Even as an adult and, yes, a Muggle, it was all so familiar.
On the short flight back to New York, I tried in vain to hide the Scholastic cover, a blatant nod to the children’s section. It was no use. Harry made Seeker! I quietly accepted that I might be a Quidditch fan. As the plane descended for landing and Harry won his first game, I felt the same curious rush as when I sailed through three seasons of Friday Night Lights having never understood the rules of football. This was quickly followed by a similar line of existential questioning about, well, the nature of my existence. So am I a full-blown Potterhead? Far from it. But I can hardly call myself a detractor anymore. (An identity crisis may well await me in the Forbidden Forest.) I don’t regret staying away all these years, and I know I’ll never have the same enthusiasm for the books as an adult that my friend’s 9-year-old brother did, or even that my classmates had when we were in college. I won’t be poring over Potter-themed subreddits, or dreaming up a spell to snag a ticket for the just-opened Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Made-up words and magic wands will never by my thing. But, I have to admit: I enjoyed my whirlwind journey to Hogwarts, and I see now why my friends stayed up all night to find out what happens next. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t curious.