The Potter in Me

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Hey, my eyes aren’t glistening with the ghosts of my past!

– Harry Potter

It is December 2007, and I’m standing across George IV Bridge from The Elephant House in Edinburgh, one of the several places J.K. Rowling frequented while writing her Harry Potter books.

At the time, I wasn’t nearly the Potter fan I am now. Mind you, I’m still not the Potter fan some people are: I don’t own a Ravenclaw scarf, and I’ve never taken a quiz to find out which Hogwarts house suits me best. But I am a big enough fan to reflect more seriously upon what it means, why it appeals so strongly to young and old alike–and why so many fear its “corrupting influence.”

Simply put, we all live for the moment in which our Hagrid comes for us, the moment we realize we are not Muggles after all, that we are really all magical beings, witches and wizards in the making. The moment we realize the sorcery that is part and parcel of being human: our magic may be metaphorical, but it can still change the world.

The Harry Potter series is about the breaking of chains, both internally and externally imposed. Perhaps one was raised in a severely restrictive household, not unlike the Dursleys’. Or, conversely, perhaps one was, as a child, perceived as “different,” whether through temperament, inclination, or physical limitation, and thereby came to perceive herself as in some way limited or less-than.

These are those of us to whom the Potter books speak, and the reason they speak so universally is that all of us, from the biggest nerd to the biggest jock, from the math club to the cheerleading squad, we all feel our limitations. Each of us in a different way, but each of us, nonetheless.

A good book frees the imagination, and Rowling’s are good books. Will they stand as “great literature”? Who cares? “Great literature” is for eggheads in academia (although I suspect that the eggiest of heads sometimes wishes himself in the rush of a Quidditch match). Rowling’s are great books, books that touch us on a visceral level: we want to be free to be who we really are. We want to feel that our differences, the ways in which we stand out from the crowd, are our strengths. That in the battle between good and evil, we all have a wand to wield.

The Dark Lord is real, and he is legion.

The Dark Lord is embodied in the ways in which society forces upon us prescribed images of “who we’re supposed to be.” Erich Fromm wrote of the “marketing character,” the insidious manner in which the capitalist ethos seeps into our consciousness and compromises our will to authentic self-representation. We are induced, in the name of individualism, to renounce our individuality in favor of the “norm,” to sell ourselves on the stock market of impersonal choice. To become whoever or whatever others want us to be, in the desperate hope that we won’t be left on the shelf, or discarded in favor of a better model.

The message? Go along to get along, so that society can move along. And whatever you do, DO NOT ROCK THE BOAT!

The Dark Lord is systematized within all the nomological structures by which the status quo is enforced on a daily basis, from the Ten Commandments to Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.” We ascribe to the law of God and of the market protection against that which we fear as humans: that one soul brave enough to stand up and step out of line. Because, as John Hughes taught us, if one gets up, we may all get up. And then where would we be?

In the end, the reason people hate Harry is the same reason people love him: he is the poster child for seeing things differently, for being brave enough to be ourselves, even when the rest of the world doesn’t approve or understand. For allowing our imaginations, rather than our fears, to dictate how far we can take this thing called humanity. In short, in the wizarding world we find the key to being better Muggles.

The truth is, all our eyes are glistening with the ghosts of our past. But such is the magic of life, a magic inherent in each of us, Muggle or no: the magic of transcendence, of unlocking the present in ourselves (Alohomora!) so that we may overcome the past, so that we may learn from it without becoming trapped in it.

This is the gospel according to Harry Potter:

The Firebolt is not a broomstick. It’s a state of mind.

Brush with Greatness

This has been a heavy week, for several reasons, and I’ve had a hard time with that writer’s-block-y thing. So, I leave you with proof (albeit grudging) that every once in a while, a library cataloger’s job can be pretty cool.

Straight from the White House–through the Library of Congress–through the personal library of Ramon F. Adams–to my desk…

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And…scene.

The Big List of Stuff We All Should Read (and Then Discuss in a Friendly and Respectful Fashion)

So…

Someone recently gave me an idea for an interesting project (which you may or may not find equally interesting, or even remotely intriguing). Anyway, a comment was made on one of my posts about things that should be required reading, and I think this is an angle that warrants further exploration. Because, you see, all too often we waste our time talking at cross-purposes, like the Bushman in Africa who thought the Coke bottle came from the heavens. (Back in the day, kids, Coke came in little glass bottles. God, I’m old…) Ordinary conversation mystifies us; we don’t recognize it when we see it; we assume disagreement implies an inability to communicate, and consequently what is presumed to be inability becomes mere unwillingness. We don’t trust each other in the zero-sum world created by partisan pundits and ad hominem politics, and if we don’t trust, what could possibly inspire us to share? We don’t really even speak the same language anymore, it seems…

Except we do. Over the centuries, thinkers have wrestled with the same communications difficulties our minds are boggled by today; they have poised themselves on the same dotted line as we do, separating black from white, right from wrong; they have stared into the heavens and into their hearts in search of truth, that ever-elusive ideal that terrorizes and inspires us all. And in many cases they have written it down, out of the blindness of their finite little hearts, and left it as a marker for those of us carrying the torch through the next stage of this existential marathon we call human history.

What we need is a common language, a lingua franca, a cultural Esperanto that allows us both to understand what others are talking about and where they’re coming from, and that maybe (just maybe!) inspires us to hold our tongues and listen instead of just spouting off. Better to be a sugar bowl than a teapot, if you know what I mean. So, what we need is a common language, and in the written works of our forebears and our contemporaries, I believe we may find it. We may just discover a key that will unlock the way the minds, hearts, and souls of others work, what makes them tick.

(Quick sidebar: We may also discover that we don’t like some of them very much; for that matter, they might not have liked us very much, either, had we been their contemporaries. An interesting mental exercise is to ask myself whether, had I been around during Augustine’s time, there might not have been a Contra Vancus in the offing. However, the negative is as much a part of the picture as the positive; we need it all if we are to understand each other and the world we live in. We need to embrace the frogs along with the princes [or princesses]. Take offense, if you will, but then take that offense and turn it into a solution.)

Anyway, the idea is to create a list that we think will help us all get past the epistemic block and start to hear and understand all that gobbledygook coming out of other folks’ mouths. What are the things YOU think we should all read? Books, articles, blog posts, Chinese takeout menus–anything will do. In future posts, I will begin to compile a list of my personal picks. When you think of something, if you wish, please send me the title (along with a link if it’s web-based) and a brief explanation of what it’s about and why you think it’s an important contribution, and I’ll post it along with the others.

I dream of a time when public discourse is reclaimed by the public and no longer left to the “pundits abundant” that yell at us every time we turn on our televisions, radios, computers, etc. Is this just a pipe dream? The romantic idealist inside me refuses to accept that. I hope you do, too…