Sunday, February 16, 2014

Melancholy Muggles

We finished reading the last Harry Potter to Max last night, and today I've been walking around in a sad hangover state.  Colors seem duller.  Time is creeping by.  Max has been edgy, too, pushing my buttons, hard to please.  We've been ejected from the world that we've been dipping into (okay, drowning in) all fall.  We aren't sure what to do with ourselves now, where to go next.

I used to mock adults who got sucked into the Pottersphere.  Grown-ups "queing" outside bookstores all night to get their hands on the latest doorstop.  Warlocks (little did I know) and soccer in the sky?  Not for me.  I'd read the first Harry Potter fifteen years ago when I was living in Japan, and I found it juvenile, not especially thrilling and more than a little geeky, smelling of Ren Faire, a new take on "Magic The Gathering."

But I'd heard that the books in the series get better, and enough people whose opinions I respect loved the series that I figured it was worth another try once Max was ready.  By the time he was six, we'd read everything by Roald Dahl, and I was getting damn sick of The Magic Treehouse, an unbelievably dull series of like 75 books in which a robotic brother and sister named Jack and Annie travel through time to play a part (Forest Gump-like) at key historical moments.  It was while reading these books that I realized can read a whole book aloud without processing a single word of it.  It made me feel as robotic as Jack and Annie, and also sorry that I couldn't be reading something better, something to make Max understand why a book can be more engrossing and affecting than a TV show.  Also, I wanted to get some pleasure out of the time I was spending reading to him, as did Matt.

We had a copy of Harry Potter in the bookshelf, and both of us would occasionally try to coax him into listening to a chapter, though he resisted at first.  The lack of pictures made it seem over his head, and that first book has quite a slow start--as do many of the others, for that matter.  It takes a while to get used to Rowling's lackadaisical pacing.  The point is to enter and then dwell in that world, and since the episodic plot spans 4000 pages, sometimes it takes two or three hundred pages to get to the "inciting incident" in any particular novel.  But little by little, he got sucked in--all three of us did.  We started Book 1 in early November, and finished Book 7 in mid-February, which means that it took only 4 months to read the 7 books--approximately 1000 pages per month.  It wasn't until I started drafting this--my eulogy for the series, it feels like--that I realize how well they've kept us company through the major transitions of the fall.

We read Book 2 aloud on the drive up to Oregon for Thanksgiving, where we were leaving our car with my mom before departing, a month later, for France.  We spent the majority of a rainy day all tucked in bed, reading the book until we finished it, then "celebrating" by watching the video.  (Which became our ritual, upon completing a book).  We hurried to a bookstore on the way to the airport and bought Book 3, which was a good thing since our flight back to San Francisco got delayed until 2 am, so we read about 100 pages while lying on the ground in a weird little oasis of a deserted pub at the Eugene airport, where there wa a standing lamp that provided the perfect reading light.

We kept reading Book 3 while walking down South Van Ness every morning, as a way to motivate Max to trek the mile to school without complaint.  (No more car).  The power to read while walking is one I honed as a kid, and it returned to serve me well.  Sometimes we'd get to his school early, and duck into Carlin's, the cafe on the corner, to read another 10 pages before he had to head off to kindergarten.  We were always a little sorry when the clock said 8:15 and we had to stop, and he'd make me promise not to read while I walked back home.

We read Book 4 on the trip to Paris.  We were only about 200 pages into it when we left, and it should have taken at least a couple of weeks to read the next 400 pages, except that our trip went so terribly wrong and we ended up having that 35 hour journey by plane and bus instead of the 8 hour one it was supposed to be to get here.  Harry Potter made the extra 11 hours on the bus from Zurich more than bearable--enjoyable even.  But by the time we got to our apartment, we were at the end.

Disaster!  Somehow, in the packing, we'd brought Books 6 and 7 but not 5.  My mom was rapidly dispatched to send the missing volume.  We got the email saying that it was on the way and should reach Paris in a week.  But suddenly, a week seemed interminable.  We were having fun exploring Paris, but it was cold and different and we were exhausted at the end of each day, which is when we always cap things off with a book in bed.  Max had this new home and language to get used to, no familiar friends to play with, and he really missed Harry Potter.  I mention these things to justify what I did next.

After discovering that Ms. Rowling's books are not available in thrifty e-versions (clever billionaire) I did the quickest of searches to see if there might be a bootleg version available for download.  I know that as a writer, I shouldn't even have considered such a thing.  I had never previously downloaded a book, but some teens I worked with did it often.  And we were really jonesing for a fix.  Lo and behold!  Victoire!  Ten minutes later, I'd found a link, and shunted the downloaded PDF over to ibooks, where the 600 page document opened without a hitch on my ipad.

I felt slightly guilty but mostly rather pleased with myself as I lay beside Max for the next few nights to read to him from Book 5: The Order of the Phoenix.  I'd told my visiting mother-in-law that these books were actually very well written, with great pacing and characters but also wonderful language, especially when read aloud, and so she sat in the little couch at the base of Max's bunkbed to listen along while I read this long scene in which Harry and Dudley make up and become buddies after watching a Monty Python marathon.  This was weird.  Rowling didn't usually make pop culture references--part of the charm of Hogwarts is that it's apart from all that, contemporary and yet timeless, "relatable" but magical.  There was also a weird line that I remember about how Hedwig, Harry's owl, looked mangled, "as if she'd flown into the garbage disposal."  As far as I knew, there were no garbage disposals at Hogwarts.

I have no idea who wrote the alternate Book 5 that I downloaded, but they were just good enough that it took 50 pages before I realized that I was reading fanfiction.  That's how far I'd come from being the person who mocked adults for reading Harry Potter.  I was downloading bootlegs of fanfiction.

Book 5 arrived shortly, and kept us good company--along with 6 and finally 7--through our first two months here in Paris.  For me (and many others, I know) the charm and success of the series is the way that it creates and sustains an entire world, that has a lot in common with ours but lots more possibilities.  Who wouldn't want to be able to cast these spells and curses?  The characters are remarkably (some might say impossibly) consistent, always recognizably themselves even though you see them grow up over the course of 7 years.  Being a "late adopter," I got to watch them grow up and save the world in fast forward.  I can sort of understand those people waiting all night to finally get their hands on the next sequel.  What's amazing to me is how she wrote the books without ever dumbing down the language or the story, so that they can appeal to her (millions of geeky) adult readers, who can never guess how things are going to go, but they are just as interesting to a six-year-old kid.  Max actually surpassed our ability to keep the plot points straight.  The only thing he objected to mildly was the kissing, and there were only about 15 pages of romance out of 4000 total.

Over the past four months, we've been in San Francisco, Oregon, Paris and Switzerland, and we've always had these books as a way to make the time pass on long journeys going from one spot to another, never quite sure where exactly we'd land upon our arrival, but always relatively certain of what we'd find in those pages.  Rowling's magic worked on Max, like it has on so many kids.  He now understands that a good book is a kind of home, better in a way than any real one, because it can come with you wherever you go.  But now that we're done with the last book, I'm afraid we are all going to feel homeless for a little while.

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