Hogwarts Square diary entry (no spoilers!)

My favorite part of the Harry Potter series has always been its attention to media and memory — gadgets and goodies like Dumbledore’s Pensieve, the Marauder’s Map, owl-delivered letters (some of which actually scream at you if you’ve been bad), text books on Monsters that are themselves eager to bite you, memory charms, photos that wave to you, portraits whose subjects can move from frame to frame or speak, and most of all Tom Riddle’s diary, so fundamental to the plot line in Book 2. I’m fascinated by Rowling’s ability to imagine so many things that seem utterly fantastical and yet speak to what seems to be a fundamental human desire — to preserve one’s experience, perhaps to stave off or overcome death, your own or someone else’s.

Tom Riddle’s diary, as I wrote elsewhere almost six years ago (!), appealed to me as a literary historian who deals on a regular basis with diaries and letters. Harry’s interaction with the book was similar, in some ways, to my own attempts to communicate with writers long dead, and pointed to the limitations of what we can know, even from documents that seem so intimate and free of artifice. Book 7, so far, seems to pick up again on the idea of Harry as historian, perhaps taking it to a level even beyond Riddle’s diary. Here (without giving too much away), Harry’s back at it again, doing the same sorts of things I spend my own summers doing: examining old letters and portraits and newspapers; sifting through sources in biographies and other books, wondering what he can trust and what’s hooey; scrutinizing inscriptions on headstones. He wants the truth about the past, about the dead, he insists over and again, though the book (and several other characters) seem to be pushing back just as hard, questioning — even in the face of Rowling’s many memory-preserving inventions — his ability to arrive at certainty about certain things.

One way to think about Rowling’s inventiveness on the topic of memory, media, and the desire to converse with the dead is to recognize some tension in her fantastic technologies between the written word and visual images. Even in Harry’s interactions with Riddle’s diary, but especially in his encounters with the Pensieve, the series seems to prioritize visual media over writing: it’s never so much about what Harry reads (in contrast to, say, Hermione) as what he sees, or thinks he sees, and the series seems to bear him out: wizard photos and preserved memory-movies seem to be more reliable indicators of the truth than books or other forms of writing.

Or maybe I’m just, as a writer, a little defensive of written forms, and if so I should just remind myself that we’re talking, here, about a print phenomenon unmatched in human history. All over the planet last Friday night, millions of people of all ages stood in lines for hours and hours to buy an 800-page book. Some wept, others simply chanted and screamed, when the countdown came, the clock struck, and the first cartons were opened. No other form of entertainment, no other historical or media event, seized the attention of the planet that night like this did, a ripple effect around the world as 12:00 hit one time zone after another, knocking them over like dominoes. And so — a prioritization of visual memory gimicks be damned: all this for a book. The world can’t be half as bad as it seems sometimes.

As for me and my house, we were in Harvard Square, with upwards of 20,000 other people, first to watch a concert on the sacred intellectual grounds of Harvard Yard: Harry and the Potters, with opening acts Draco and the Malfoys and a group of seven-year-olds called the Hungarian Horntails. And because I’m the kind of guy who prioritizes writing over visual media (why can’t I ever remember to bring a camera to things like this??) I’ll have to settle, by way of preserving my own memories of the night, for a Great Whatsit diary entry, a quick set of favorite moments and a few choice links I’ve culled from YouTube and flickr.

Above all I want to remember Anna’s and Molly’s enthusiasm for Harry and the Potters: they’ve been downloading and MySpacing these guys for weeks, memorizing and singing along to Weezer-esque songs with titles like “Save Ginny Weasley from the Basilisk” and “This Book Is So Awesome.” When we first heard about the upcoming performance, I had the impression they were going to play outside the Harvard Coop, and that they were sponsored by the bookstore. Turns out they were playing Harvard Yard, performing on the steps of the chapel, and that the entire quad between the chapel and the steps of the library was packed, by nightfall, with thousands of Potter fans. We worked our way up to the front, where an enormous crowd of 16-to-20-year-olds pressed the stage and screamed as if this were the Beatles in 1964.

If audience members weren’t wearing costumes (I saw a dead-on Harry and Ginny unabashedly making out during a song called “The Hogwarts Tonsil Hockey Team”) they were wearing band merch — T-shirts with slogans like “This Guitar Hides a Horcrux” or “Save Ginny!” Shortly after we squeezed close enough to see and hear better, Anna decided to join the crowd at the stage and the rest of us settled for some front-row sideline seats that had long since been abandoned — no doubt by kids who had been camping out there all day to get as close as we were but who rushed the stage at first chance. It was a little scary to let her go like that, but we could see her little head jumping up and down with the rest of them and once it was over we knew it was worth it. Her voice was hoarse, she’d almost touched one of the Dracos when he reached out from the stage, and she had plenty to say about the body odor of that many teens squeezed together.

The crowd was full of fanatics: people dressed not only like Harry or wore Gryffindor robes, but also like whole families of Malfoys, punk kids sporting Death Eater robes and Dark Marks on their forearms (they cheered louder for Draco and the Malfoys than for the headliners), and even a couple golden snitches. I saw one of my own students (in a Horcrux T-shirt) who pointed me toward the merch tables, where I headed to get Anna a “Save Ginny” shirt, and realized that kids in college now basically grew up, as much as Anna had, with Harry Potter as the defining media phenom of their childhood and adolescence. My parents had the Beatles; we had Star Wars; and they have Harry, which as far as I can tell is poised to eclipse the other two in the long run. The crowd near the stage jumped, screamed, sang along (and knew all the words!). The band repeated a little ditty ad nauseam about Hagrid’s Beard. This must have been bigger than anything they’d ever imagined when they dreamed up this novelty act:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Firh0k6cnO4[/youtube]

Watching this event in Harvard Yard seem appropriate in certain ways: it looked boarding-schoolish enough to approximate a Hogwarts atmosphere, and the overall theme of the night seemed to be Revenge of the Nerds. (All this, once again, for a book!) But it had its share of ironies too: after all, this is a rather low-brow literary sensation, often clumsily written, filled even with bad grammar. The lovable curmudgeon Harold Bloom and other Ivy-grown watchdogs of Western tradition have poo-pooed the series from the beginning. I’m sure that several secular high priests associated with Harvard were rolling in their graves, not to mention the sacred ones that preceded them: imagine! A university founded to train Puritan divines, given over to 20,000 people dressed as witches and wizards! 1692 paled in comparison.

Here are my hands-down favorite vlog reviews of the event from YouTube. The first is a little slow but sweet; if you pick one, though, pick the second. I think they’re both precious:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9PQYdDhKQBg[/youtube]

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8EWLD6yOXvw[/youtube]

We weren’t fanatical enough to dress up, but having purchased Anna a T-shirt I knew that to keep it fair I had to go look for the wizard-related article Molly had been asking for ever since we visited the Witch Museum in Salem last week: a wizard’s cap. The Coop didn’t have one (and given the state of things there, I realized we wouldn’t be heading there to buy our books: at 9:00 it was already a madhouse!). I headed over to our preferred Harvard Book Store, the independent one on Mass Ave. There I found a very fine wizard cap for only $25: the last one, on a display dummy. I also found a more civilized atmosphere, where people were still buying advance copies to pick up later that night, after playing wizard games and eating free Toscanini’s ice cream. I paid for two copies, along with the hat, and left. Turns out to have been a smart decision. We returned early and only had to sit in line for two hours, taking turns in the line while the others made wands and origami snitches and had their cards read, or just spent the time browsing in the bargain basement of one of our favorite bookstores in the world. (This guy bought his copy at the same counter we did.) When we emerged just after midnight, the girls holding their books over their heads triumphantly, one guy in the middle of the enormous crowd that waited outside the store pointed a wand at them and said: “Accio book!

It would have taken a lot stronger magic than that to strip the books from those little fingers.

11 responses to “Hogwarts Square diary entry (no spoilers!)”

  1. Dave says:

    Great reportage, Bryan!

  2. Taryn says:

    Bryan, I love love love this! I remember reading parts of the Potter books with Anna and Molly at your apartment in Cambridge. I was also with Stephanie when she bought one of the books on tape (Chamber of Secrets, I think??) at a yard sale, and Anna and Molly would listen to it at bedtime until they drifted off to sleep. I’m glad to see that they haven’t (nor have you!) outgrown their love for our wizard friend!

  3. cynthia says:

    Great job on the Harry Potter series

  4. Rachel says:

    Yes, I knew Bryan was up to something in all his spare time. It’s how he affords all those oysters!

  5. Joele says:

    Loved this post. It sounded like so much fun. Good for you for having as much fun as your girls!

  6. Hi again, Joele! It’s always about us, isn’t it? Wait — you mean the kids like those books too? I have to admit we probably started the midnight book buying a little early, but the year we started Anna and Molly somehow wound up in the Times illustrating a Frank Rich column about the book. Anna was sitting in the bookstore reading the new book (couldn’t even be bothered to go home first) while Molly was asleep on the floor under the chair.

    Rachel, your comment made me laugh out loud. Thanks, Cynthia, for the setup.

    Taryn! I thought that was you the other day. You’ll be pleased to know one of the kids in particular still listens to HP every night. The only catch is that we now how them all on her computer, so if we don’t remember to go in and shut it off they’ll play all night long. Still, it’s better than the CD versions we had at one point, which had been so well worn and poorly cared for that they inevitably skipped — sometimes all night long, stuck in the same place.

    So once Anna and Stephanie had both finished the book (Sunday night and yesterday morning, respectively), I squirreled myself away and read all day long. What a great finale to the series. I think 7 is my favorite — edging out even book 3. That woman has some serious imagination going on. It reminded me of something I overheard on the night of the release: with all the people marching around dressed up like favorite characters, I heard one woman say, as she squeezed into an overcrowded bookstore, “Man, I wish I were JK Rowling.”

  7. Taryn says:

    Hey Bry, yup, it’s me… I’ve been lurking for a few weeks now… When I got home last night I listened to the vlogs you included in your post (don’t have sound on my computer at work, which is where I originally read it), and you are right… they are precious. The first one of the kid talking for 4 minutes about how “awesome” the show was nearly brought tears to my eyes it was so cute. I love teenagers!

  8. I love how in the second one she said she wasn’t actually buying the book but heading down to the library first thing in the morning to get it. That one *did* bring tears to my eyes! How awesome is that! Lining up at the library to check out a book!

  9. Taryn says:

    Reminds me of my students… oh wait, no it doesn’t.

  10. Joele says:

    It is totally about us! I have gotten a late start to the book. Going up North there of course is not a lot of options of getting it. The minute I got home on Sunday I started. If work wouldn’t get in my way I would be done. It is great that I am finally getting my oldest into it and even my 5 year old is showing interest. Now if my 8 year old would catch the bug I would be so happy. Also glad to hear you got to see a Harry and the Potter’s show. My husband’s friend got us into them last summer. Such fun.

  11. PB says:

    My favorite costume from Friday was a girl dressed up as Harry’s patronus – Silver face, silver horns, hooves, swirls of white tulle and a wand sticking out of her butt.

    My homemade t-shirt quoted Luna Lovegood – “Don’t worry, you’re just as sane as I am.”

    I finished Sunday night and yes, 7 is best. Thank you Bryan for honing in so beautifully on what is key – the experience, excitement and most important, the sharing. What does Harold know, the old muggle.