Books that Change Us

This post is very late, and wasn’t even the post I was planning on writing (although that one is still coming; I’ve even started writing it). I was unfortunately sick for a while, then distracted by something else, and then I got a new (temporary) job. So I’ve been a bit busy. But I’d like to comment on the thing that got me distracted, because it’s exactly the kind of thing I talked about in my last post. A couple of weeks ago, something ended (well, it was one ending, anyway) that has consumed over a decade of my life. It altered the course of my future, shaped my conversation and my dreams, determined the path of my education and career choices, fashioned my social circle.

I’m talking about Harry Potter. And since today (hey, it’s still July 31st still here in Utah!) is the birthday both of my favorite wizard and his creator, I just had to commemorate this amazing journey I’ve taken.

I was almost twenty years old when I first met Harry. It was the spring of 2000, and I’d just started a job at Deseret Book–an LDS bookstore. I had many parents come into the store, asking about the books–there were only three at the time, but on July 8, the fourth would be released, and we were marketing it heavily–whether they were appropriate for their child to read, whether they were even any good. I decided the best way to answer these questions was to read the books myself. I’ve always loved children’s and young adult literature anyway. Might at well find out what all the fuss was about. So one very slow night at work, after I’d cleaned my counter and straightened all the shelves in my immediate area, I grabbed a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and started reading.

Three days (and three shifts) later, I finished Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and I was completely, irrevocably in love.

I asked for the first three hardcovers for my 20th birthday. I immediately lobbied to help with planning our Goblet of Fire launch day party (we ended up having a local aviary come with real owls!) I knew our store wouldn’t have enough books (corporate cut our order so we barely had enough for pre-paid preorders, and it was too late to get more), so I planned to attend a midnight party at Media Play to get my copy. I read the first seven chapters in the back room while ostensibly matching up prepaid orders with books (shh, don’t tell!) I forced my family to read them too.

And then came what we long-time Harry Potter fans refer to as the Three Year Summer. Up to that point, the HP books had been coming out one a year, like clockwork. But it would be three long years after the Goblet of Fire cliffhanger before Order of the Phoenix would be released. Along with a lot of other fans, I started to go stir-crazy. By summer of 2001 I was scouring the internet for any and all information on Book Five (as we had to call it then, not knowing the title) or the forthcoming movie. In the process, I started reading fanfiction (stories written by fans but set in another author’s world) and found myself meeting other fans who were as anxious as myself. Soon I was discussing theories, obsessing over casting choices (ALAN RICKMAN AS SNAPE?!?! PERFECT!!) and debating which ship (short for relationship) would be triumphant– Ron and Hermione, or Harry and Hermione? (I was on the right side ;) ).  Eventually I even wrote fanfiction myself (no, I will not be linking to it. Anyone who doesn’t know what my pen name is should be able to find it with a rudimentary Google search. Most of it is pretty horrible. :P ). I made a Ravenclaw costume for Halloween. I attended, and presented at, two Harry Potter conferences. I had people fly in from all over the country to watch the third movie with me (which came out on my birthday). I flew to Houston to meet up with friends for the sixth book release. And I nearly bawled my eyes out when I finished the seventh book.

That was really the first end of my journey, of course– no more books, no new canon. I knew how it ended now. But we pacified ourselves with the knowledge that there were still several movies (do you think they’ll split Deathly Hallows into two?!? And will they film the epilogue? Will we finally be able to see Ron and Hermione kiss?) and maybe an encyclopedia by J.K. Rowling to look forward to. Luckily for us, even though the movies are now over,  Pottermore is coming soon (I couldn’t register last night because I have 9 o’clock AM church, dangit. Had to give up at 1:30 AM). So we still have things to look forward to. And besides, with books like this– they never really end, do they?

I can’t say everything I want to here– I’ve tried, and it would make this post two miles long (but at least I’ve got three or four more ideas for entries :P ). I’ll have to go into the deeper stuff later. Suffice it to say, for now, that only rarely have I found books like this. They have humor. They have pathos. They have romance. They deal with deep issues– prejudice, loss, love, friendship, and more, in a way that makes you think. They capture your imagination and make you care deeply about people who have never existed. They make you laugh out loud. They make you cry. They make you long for more.

If you’ve never read the Harry Potter books, I really couldn’t recommend them more. Not only were they a once-in-a-lifetime phenomena, they’re just plain good. J.K. Rowling gave this world a gift when she wrote these books. It’s a gift I will always be thankful for.

Thank you, Jo.

Welcome: Why I’m Here

Let’s just get this out of the way: I love to read. Adore it. It is by far my favorite thing to do in this whole world. I learned when I was four and have simply never stopped. I even chose my college major (and potential future careers) based on it, which is how I ended up with a Masters degree in English literature. I enjoy many kinds of reading, from nonfiction to young adult books, from mystery novels to fantasy, from classics to the latest and greatest craze. What I read has made me who I am.

And just like most people who have an adored hobby, I think everyone else should love to read, too. Especially members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which I am a member and from which perspective I’ll be writing this blog. I’ll enumerate exactly why I think everyone should read in another post. In this one, I just want to talk about what kinds of books I plan to focus on in this blog.

And I’m the first to admit that some books are better than others. Many books are simply not worth my time to read, because the subject matter is moronic, inappropriate, immoral, degrading to the human spirit, or intended merely to shock without having any redeeming value. Or maybe the writing is just crummy. Or some (or all) of the above. Or the writing is so “good” that it obscures any meaning the book might otherwise have (but more on that later). There are just so many really good books out there I have a hard time justifying wasting any of my reading time on drivel.

On the other hand, many books have good writing and tell a great story, but lack any real substance. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that kind of reading. I do a lot of it myself, in fact. It’s the kind of thing I grew up reading (while my reading level was always way above my age, my taste was certainly not. I just read The Baby-Sitter’s Club, Nancy Drew, and and other books meant for kids my age really really fast) and it’s the kind of thing I enjoy reading today– in fact, I’d probably say that most of my recreational reading falls into this category. But just because these books are good doesn’t mean there isn’t something better.

I’m not talking about so-called “literary fiction,” which takes such pains to be “artistic” and “avant-garde” that it’s difficult to figure out what the author is trying to say, let alone what it all means. Like I said, I have an MA in English, and I’m pretty sure I’m not smart enough to read that kind of thing (either that, or I’m too smart– can’t tell which). I find most of this type of “literature” (and I use the term loosely) to be arrogant and incomprehensible, and I avoid reading them whenever possible. No, let the literary artistes keep writing books for other literary artistes. I’ll keep reading the good stuff.

I have long felt that they very best books are those that combine a well-written, entertaining, and engaging story with something deeper, something more profound, like a moral lesson, and intriguing idea, a glimpse of what it means to be human. They may be classics written many years ago, or they may be the latest Sci-Fi bestseller, but they should always be enjoyable and understood, on at least some level, to everyone who might read them. They’re the books that stick with you, that you want to read again and again. That move you to tears of sorrow or joy. That help you have understanding and empathy for those who are different than you.  That make you stop and think. That change the way you look at yourself. That change the way you look at the world.

Those are the books I call “literature”, and are what I  want to talk about here. And I can’t wait to get started. Won’t you join me?