It all started with an article. Last June, my Refinery29 editor assigned me a story about J.K. Rowling sharing a Draco Malfoy meme on Twitter. It was a quick write-up, and the traffic was unbelievable; it ended up being one of the most read posts of the year. At our departmental meeting later that day, the team was high on the buzz of a traffic hit. One editor was so delighted with the success of the story that she kept making Harry Potter references throughout the meeting. At that point, I had to 'fess up. "I, uh, haven't actually read Harry Potter." She may have screeched. "What? You're fired!" I wasn't fired. I was, however, shamed for my lack of Potter knowledge and strongly encouraged to raid a small child's bookshelf STAT. One year and seven books later, on the day of Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling's joint birthday — a factoid I now know all about — here I am. First, you may be wondering how I managed to make it to the age of 36 without reading a single page of Harry Potter. Easy: college. The U.S. release of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in 1998 coincided with my first year of college. If I read anything other than a textbook, it was Anaïs Nin's diaries or Catcher in the Rye. It was a time for studying, navel-gazing, and literature I could freely buy without my parents discovering it. Why waste that freedom on a book for kids? I should clarify that not every college-aged person felt the same way. During an internship at Yale, my grad student co-worker gushed about her plans to hit the bookstore at midnight for the latest release. I probably should have taken that as a clue that there were many things in the Potter series that would appeal to an adult, but I shrugged it off and went back to underlining passages in Henry & June. So, yes, I missed out. I even moved to London and remained blissfully unaware of my proximity to Platform 9 3/4 or Diagon Alley. A close friend of mine admitted to being a body double for Justin Finch-Fletchley in the second film, and I could only shrug. None of it meant anything. And then work got involved. The office collectively agreed that I needed to make up for lost time. I needed to get reading. To make myself feel better about reading a "kid's book," I decided to recruit an actual kid. My then 8-year-old nephew, Finn, had just picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone at the library, so we kept pace with each other, me in London, him in Texas. He (and my brother-in-law) read his copy before bedtime. I brought mine along to a Venetian holiday, but chickened out when it came to reading in public. I cheated on J.K. Rowling with E.M. Forster for appearance's sake. Finn and I tried our best to read the entire series together, though it was hard, due both to the ocean between us and the fact that he had to take a brief hiatus after getting nightmares. On visits home to Texas, I'd read the story aloud to him, testing whether or not he was paying attention by stopping and asking about a new plot point. Ron was our favorite. We each twigged that Professor Lupin was probably a werewolf. When I wore my trusty hair towel over my wet hair, he joked that I looked like Professor Quirrell. One night we plowed through a third of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban so that, on my last night before flying back to London, we could stay up and watch the film version. We concurred that the book was better. In December, Finn turned 9. He requested a cake shaped like a Basilisk. In response to his wish that he could fly on a broom like Harry, I wrote him a birthday story in which he did just that. Sharing the stories with my nephew has been the best part of this challenge, but it's certainly not the only reason I've enjoyed it. To my surprise, I found myself getting completely sucked into the stories. Yes, the recapping of Harry's backstory became a bit tedious in the context of a binge-read, but I loved the cleverness, the adventure, the language, the magic! The names alone — Bellatrix Lestrange, Neville Longbottom, Rubeus Hagrid —deserve some sort of medal in alphabet mastery. I glowered at Dolores Umbridge and developed a mini-crush on Sirius Black. I'm still torn up about Fred Weasley and Cedric Diggory. Unfortunately, I didn't get to discover poor Cedric's death as intended. I was at home, progressing through the fourth book with my nephew, when I caught an episode of Orange Is the New Black. A cafeteria scene had Taystee warning Poussey not to mess with magic, lest she turn up dead like Cedric Diggory. Had I not been chapters away from experiencing this death as a reader, I might have loved the fact that Taystee and Black Cindy were Rowling fanatics. Instead, I yelped and covered my ears. Thanks a lot, ladies. That's another thing about reading Harry Potter almost two decades after everyone else. Spoilers and references are everywhere, and you can't exactly get mad when a plot twist gets ruined. I did it to myself, too. During a Christmas game of "Who am I?" with friends, I boldly scrawled Severus Snape onto a Post-It and slapped it to a friend's forehead. He was stumped, and must have asked 20 questions before getting to this one. Friend: "Am I dead?" Me: "No." Everyone else: "Yes." Me: "WHAT?!" Friend: "Oh, I got it. Severus Snape." I got more invested in the books as the themes grew darker and more mature. I relished Ron and Hermione's furious crushing with a fervor usually reserved for, say, Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele. The violence made me worry for my nephew's sleeping habits but thrilled me on a personal level. To be perfectly honest, I found The Deathly Hallows to be a bit of a letdown — especially Dumbledore's vague musings and Voldemort's lack of a proper comeuppance — but the Battle of Hogwarts kept me just as hooked and riddled with goosebumps as Gone Girl did.
I stayed up many late nights with the books, but one evening in particular, on July 4 as it happens, stands out. I had the fortune to book the Wizard Chambers at London's Georgian House Hotel to finish the final pages of the final tome, bringing my journey to an end. The hotel has transformed its subterranean floor into a mini-Hogwarts, complete with a corridor lined in old, vaguely haunting paintings (no password required). My room, modeled after Ron and Harry's chambers, featured a canopy bed, battered trunks, a cauldron, an owl statue, potion bottles, and other vaguely Gothic accoutrements. Guests can pore through copies of the Potter series, or request any of the films to be screened on the TV. It's a dream come true for kids, but for me, who'd arrived straight from a music festival and had imbibed more than my share of, shall we say, firewhiskey, it was slightly unsettling. The room was magical, but I was convinced a possessed rat might come in from the terrace, or even Voldemort himself would suddenly appear in the toilet bowl. But that only speaks to how vivid a world Rowling created — that I, an adult woman, could wake up slightly hung over in a Harry Potter-themed room and still feel a tingle of excitement about what might happen. Someday I'd like to go back with a clearer head — and my nephew. I'm still in a post-Harry daze. I miss Rowling's enchanting world, but it's also nice to move on to more adult fare, like, say, the Ty Cobb biography that's on my nightstand. Harry and his friends are grown up, and so am I. We're practically the same age now. Unlike my nephew, I don't long for a flying broom or a spot on a Quidditch team. But I wouldn't turn down one of Molly Weasley's cooking and cleaning charms. That, my friends, has got to be a sure sign of age.