I wear glasses and say words like “derogatory”. I watched Arrested Development. So, yeah, I’m pretty smart. I’m not an expert in literature, but I’ve read a few of the Slavics, some Dickens, all of Bukowski’s novels and most of Vonnegut’s. Of my countrymen, I’ve read almost everything by Saramago and Eça; I read one or two other authors, but I don’t bother with the rest. But when people ask me which is my favorite book, I’ll always proudly reply: Harry Potter. It doesn’t matter which big words I use or the way I arrange my glasses when I reply, they’ll always be, in this order, surprised and condescending. “Don’t give me that derogatory look just yet”, I tell them “let me explain”.
There’s a very simple reason for Harry Potter remaining in the top of my favourite books: I read it as a child. I grew up with it. I was lucky to be the same age as Hermione, Harry and Ron. I went through the same things they did, at the same time. I was accepted in a very exclusive school, top 10 in the country at the time. My sister went there before me, but I still felt like a mudblood (sorry for the language). Before the school year I had to buy my supplies. Like a Weasley, everything I could re-use from my older siblings I did. Fortunately, my parents had TV’s, so I had only a 5 year older sister, smaller than me; I got some books, pens, notebooks, rulers, erasers, half of a set-square, and one particularly large summer dress. What I couldn’t get second hand, I had to buy at the lowest price, so I had to scourge Diagon Alley for the best bargains. I was either 10 or 11, I thought I was big and brave, but like Harry I was also scared when Olivander helped me choose my wand. I mean, when he helped me getting chosen by my wand. I also bought my cauldron, 1 set of crystal phials, gym clothes, 2 gridded notebooks, 1 telescope, 1 drawing pad, 15 different pencils, 1 set of brass scales and the required books I hadn’t inherited: Portuguese, English, History, Sciences, Defense Against The Dark Arts and Geography. I also had to buy new clothes. I wanted a pair of loose jeans, with a cartoon on the back and metal chains, which connected from the beginning of the pocket to the end, and hung almost to the knees. I got the cheap imitation and which still made me happy.
You might have noticed I have some difficulty separating reality from fantasy. That’s the muggle in you talking. Tell him to quiet down for the next few hundred words.
My middle school was a scary place, I was as tall as Ron and as afraid of spiders. My inadequacy had little parallel in the real world, but it found solace in this fictional one. I spent a lot of time alone in the library, and people teased me for it, but where else could I look for Nicholas Flamel? I remember reading about the forbidden section of the library, and I imagined it exactly like the corridors of my school’s tiny agglomerate of books. The forbidden section was the one with big, leathery hardcover volumes. One day I mustered the courage to go up that section, I opened one but it didn’t scream as I both feared and hoped for. It still scared me, I was too young for such detailed description of the female reproductive system.
Next to my school’s library, there was a bookstore where students got most of their supplies. I had a sort of scholarship, attributed to the students whose parents had the lowest incomes. I was on the top class of my year, all my classmates were rich kids, or they seemed that way to me. I was the only one with that scholarship and I was ashamed of it, so I only went there when it was empty. Whenever I was telling my name, for her to look on the poor students list, with a ruler and a red pen, I had my stomach tied in a bow and my throat tied in a tighter one, afraid of anyone coming in, especially one of my classmates. I pitied myself but I dreaded people feeling pity for me. To this day, saying “Poor him” is something I hate hearing, something I never say.
Ron helped me through this. He was poor and ashamed of it, he felt embarrassment for his parents and a childish envy for Harry. Harry was rich, but he didn’t have many of things Ron took for granted, things he’d much rather have. Love is something money can’t buy. It’s an obvious and clichéd message, you might point to better literature which could teach me the same, but as a kid, this had a tremendous impact on me. I used to be ashamed of my parents not having a car. My father had and old 50cc motorcycle and my mother had a scooter. I always asked my mother to stop the scooter before we actually had to stop, because I was embarrassed that the fact my parents didn’t own a car was known. Before every school year, I had to go with my father to a school reunion, but I was afraid to ask him the same, so I’d dread that day for weeks or months. Ron helped me let go of my shame. The first time I didn’t ask my mother to stop short of the place I’d have to go, it took a lot of courage, which I find silly now. My mother smiled, and I could read that smile. That for all those years, I was embarrassed of her and she knew it. She felt the shame in her son and accepted that horrible feeling, so that her son wouldn’t suffer. It still pains me to think of that, but I never felt shame for my parents again. I owe that to that ginger fictional boy.
In The Order of the Phoenix the first major character died. Harry had been introduced to the pain of death, but in a different way. His parents had died as a baby, so he didn’t feel the full impact of that pain. He got to know Sirius, I got to know Sirius, we both felt the pain of his departure. It was the first death I felt deeply, even though my grandfather, whom I loved deeply had passed years before. It was the only death of a person close to me that happened before or since, but at the time I was 6, I couldn’t feel the way grown-ups feel when they lose someone they love. Harry Potter taught me about the grieving pain I was too young to understand when my grandfather died. The image of Sirius falling through a veil stuck in my mind with the same strength as the glimpse I got from my grandfather, when I snuck into the living room and got on the tip of my toes, peering inside to look at that now unfamiliar face, before I was dragged away from that open black box, covered by the same laced veil. It was mostly curiosity I felt. The thought of my grandfather never talking to me again was ungraspable. I had just interrupted my Dragon Ball watching session to play cards with him, two or three days ago. Of course we’d do it again. Over the years I understood that he wasn’t coming back, that I’d never play cards with him again, but it wasn’t until Sirius passed through that veil, after those few pages of incredulity, that I could feel the passing of my grandfather as a grown up. That morning I mourned for the first time.
Through part of my childhood and teenage years, Harry Potter accompanied me. I identified with the awkwardness of Harry’s first kiss and I hoped for a transformation from the ugly duckling to the handsome jock that would happen as simply as letting Madame Pomfrey go a few extra millimeters on a simple procedure. It happened later and painstakingly, with a lot of hours in the gym and the dentists, to less spectacular extent. I never arrived in a room giving pause to thousands of people, nor did I ever had my Viktor Krum. But still, Hermione gave me hope. No matter how bookish and nerdish I was, I could still be a pretty little girl.
Snape taught me the hard way not to be judgmental, to be aware of my lack of knowledge and understanding of other people, before I judge them. Draco taught me something similar, that I should take in account someone’s upbringing and not to take their actions as isolated acts. Umbrige taught me to hate cats and pink – maybe not what J.K. was going for, but that’s what I took from the book. Luna and Neville taught me it was OK to be different and to embrace those differences (the movie version of Neville taught me puberty in Great Britain works differently). The lessons continue.
As a literary work, it proved unique. Never again I could imagine such precise details, so complex looking characters or locations. No other work became engraved in my brain the way Harry Potter did. I don’t know if this is a unique phenomena, but with every book I’ve read since, the characters and locations I imagine became blurry in comparison, paltry figments of my imagination attached to familiar images, compared to the unique distinguishable images that populated my mind when it drifted through Hogwarts, Hogsmeade, The Burrow or number 4, Privet Drive.
When I pick up a book of the series, it takes me back in time as nothing can. Don’t ask me why, but The Philosopher’s Stone reminds me of the smell of ham and the carpet of my sister’s room. The Prisoner of Azkaban takes me to my living room couch, where I’d sit, saying to myself, “You can only read 50 pages, or you’ll finish it too soon”. The Goblet of Fire fills me with the fresh smell of mahogany leaking from my first bed, of those first few days alone in my new room, after 12 years of sharing one with my sister. The Half-Blood Prince takes me to midnight of the day the book would be released, to the bookstore where I’d get my high-school books.
King, Dickens, Bukowski, Vonnegut, Tolstoy, Fante, Orwell, McCarthy, Dostoyevsky, Camus, Saramago, Puzo, Queirós, West, Kerouac, Asimov, Martin or Yates, aim lower or you’ll inevitably fail. Until you take me back to the carpet covered floor of my sister’s old room and fill my nostrils with an unexpected ham smell, you can only aim for the second spot on my favorite books’ list.
I’m not the messiah, but you can follow me: