July 31st is Harry Potter’s birthday. It’s also J. K. Rowling’s birthday and I remember a time when being aware of that little nugget of information was a lesser-known treat shared among fans of the sensational new book Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Now, 20 years later, it seems that the whole world is steeped in knowledge of the world of Harry Potter, his friends, their time at Hogwarts, and the genius of J. K. Rowling. Everyone is a fan of Harry Potter. According to Rowling’s British publisher there have been over 450 million Harry Potter books sold and when the final book in the series, Harry Potter and the deathly hallows, was published in 2007 there were 2.65 million copies sold in the first 24 hours.
It’s hard to think back to what life was like 20 years ago before the first Harry Potter book was published. We think that we remember what life was like back then but do we really? Jean Chretien was our soapstone sculpture-wielding Prime Minister, Bill Clinton was investigated and impeached for perjury and obstruction of justice and we were looking forward to the Nagano Winter Olympics. Does any of that sound familiar? What if you had a soundtrack of Celine Dion singing “My Heart Will Go On” from the Titanic? It was constantly on the radio, I think it was playing everywhere. If you are having a hard time thinking of how much life has changed in twenty years look at J. K. Rowling herself.
I remember exactly what it was like to read the first book in the series. I read it on the GO train as I went back and forth to work at my first job in a library in Toronto. In fact, I remember looking around at the people around me, who often dressed in conservative, dark suits and long coats, and felt like we looked as if we all might be heading off to Hogwarts. Everything she wrote about Harry’s life seemed so real, maybe I was living it? And, I wasn’t the only adult traveling on the GO trains who read that first book or any that followed. It was not unusual to look up from the pages of one of those books and see someone else enjoying the same book. I loved the smiles that we shared as we looked over at other people who were wasting their time reading newspapers – newspapers! When they could have been getting to know Harry, Ron and Hermione? They were missing so much.
Remember how it took so long to wait for the next book to be published? I have often told my own kids that they have no idea of how lucky they are that the entire canon of Harry Potter’s life just existed on our shelves for them to read when they wanted. They didn’t have to wait like all of the ‘older’ people did. Well, the books weren’t just sitting there for them to read at first, I read the books aloud to them the first time and made some of the chapters a little less ‘scary’. I said that Harry and Voldemort were just fighting ‘a bit’ and I might have left out some of the more horrible moments entirely. I was never able to read the final moment in Dobby’s life at Shell Cottage without crying. However, like so many people who come into WPL and talk about their love of Harry Potter we have endless happy memories that come from that wizarding world. We have inside jokes that come from the books, we have seen the movies together, we have celebrated Harry Potter birthday parties complete with wands, robes and chocolate frogs and made the pilgrimage to the theme park so that we could all have the fun of seeing the ‘wand choose the wizard’ and bring home a Pygmy Puff.
The Harry Potter books have never stopped being popular here at WPL. We often purchase new copies as the books keep wearing out from use! It’s rare that a week goes by without someone coming in to say that they just felt like a Harry Potter movie marathon. Whether it is the original seven books, the supporting material (we have such a great wizarding craft book, for example) or the films, every customer comes in with a conversation about how much the stories have meant to them. It always comes with an instant smile and a feeling of recognition, as if we are all part of the same little nation of people who share the same language and jokes. I remember an afternoon at the McCormick branch where an elegantly dressed woman came in and asked for the first book in the series and, as we walked back to the front desk, she confessed that she made a habit of re-reading the books every summer. Other customers have said that they read them for comfort when they have a cold, or have taken to reading the chapters about Harry’s Christmas holidays as a part of their family tradition each year. We have families who enjoy the audiobooks on long trips to the cottage or to visit grandparents in Nova Scotia every summer. The tale of a lonely boy who finds acceptance, friendship and love means something to so many people and, 20 years after the first book was published, it continues to be so important to all of us.
I’m not saying we should all go out and bake a chocolate cake as Hagrid did when he helped Harry to celebrate his birthday (oh, those horrid Dursleys had previously ignored the day or given him absurd things like a coat hanger as a gift) but it might be a good way to celebrate the boy who lived and the woman who gave us pages and pages of a world to escape to whenever we need it.