Here is the text of the seven-minute talk I gave as one of five panelists at the Harry Potter, Brands of Magic colloquium at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia on October 29, 2015.
I first taught Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stonehere at UBC in the winter term of 2002, in a course, not on children’s literature, but on cultural theory, as a sort of case study around the impacts and interpretation of popular media. With the publication of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in 2000, and the release of the first Harry Potter film in November, 2001, the publishing industry phenomenon arguably passed its tipping point, and Harry Potter became a name – and a literary brand – that garnered global recognition in the media. In the opening chapter of the first book, as the infant Harry is being delivered to Privet Drive (you all know the story), the wizard Albus Dumbledore tells his colleague at Hogwarts, Professor McGonagall, that he has written a letter to the Dursleys that will enable them “to explain everything to him when he’s older.” “Really Dumbledore,” Professor McGonagall replies,
“You think you can explain all this in a letter? These people will never understand him! He’ll be famous – a legend – I wouldn’t be surprised if today was known as Harry Potter day in future – there will be books written about Harry – every child in our world will know his name!” (15)
I can’t help but hear this passage as J. K. Rowling articulating a playful fantasy of literary success, as she sits unknown and unpublished scribbling in a notebook in The Elephant House tea shop in Edinburgh in the mid-1990s. This passage not only proves to be strangely and accurately prophetic, but it also sets up what I take to be the core quandary of the whole series of books “written about Harry”: how to understand him, how to read “Harry Potter.” That problem of knowing is positioned initially here as a dichotomy, a choice between worlds: magical or Muggle, Hogwarts or Privet Drive. But we have to recognize that, unpleasant as the Dursleys are, Professor McGonagall is also off the mark herself: Harry doesn’t so much choose as negotiate or mediate between those two poles. He enables us, if you think about it, to read our way between the everyday and the fantastical. Harry both enacts and embodies a specific set of reading practices, a literacy; knowing his name means working to acquire that competence, that mobility, that literacy.
In the three or so minutes that remain, I’m going to sketch out three key aspects of that literacy, of what the Harry Potter literary brand represents. Those three aspects of reading – you might call them diagonals through this book, mediating between magical and Muggle being – are the material, the heuristic and the haptic.
When the Dursleys try to escape the onslaught of Hogwarts admission letters addressed to Harry, they end up in “the most miserable little shack you could imagine,” on what Rowling describes as “a large rock way out to sea” (37). Significantly, both Dudley and his father are certain that, whatever else, “there was no television in there.” Hagrid, as you all know, still hand-delivers the letter to Harry amid flashes of lightening – echoes, perhaps, of the scar on Harry’s forehead. Manuscript, signed text inscribed on paper, is consistently counterpoised to electronic media, especially television. (There is no TV at Hogwarts. Mass media, complete with moving images, is displaced into the wizarding newspaper The Daily Prophet, an assemblage of stories, gossip and propaganda that requires reading rather than viewing.) Magic, especially spells, appear to require a return to the material object of the page, the book. And in 2001, too, despite its commercial refiguring in Hollywood movies, “Harry Potter” seemed to represented a resurgence of reading and of book-buying, an antidote to screen and network. Books, as circulating and consumed objects, stood for a particular intimate reactivation of the readerly imagination.
That reactivation is also figured in the books themselves as heuristic: Harry, Hermione and Ron solve problems by learning to be engaged readers. They decode text (as with the mirror of Erised, for example), text we’re meant, arguably, to decode along with them. We’re invited, you could say, to solve the books. But it’s worth noting that Rowling doesn’t offer up singular solutions, or “correct” answers. She doesn’t keep silent because, following Professor McGonagall, that readers can’t understand, can’t cross into the hermetic realm of magical privilege. Rather, it’s because the process of puzzling out what Harry means to discover is pluralistic and divergent. You might recall the Hogwarts school song, which declares that we will “learn until our brains all rot,” is not choral so much as “bellowed” cacophony, with everyone picking their own favourite tune: an enactment of differential community, a solution that won’t resolve or homogenize.
Harry Potter doesn’t so much refuse electronic media as reinsert a haptic interface, through the material technology of the book, into the various circuits of public consumption. Books are tactile; they have to be handled, touched, their pages turned. The demise of Quirrell (and the name suggests, aside from quarrelsomeness, a quire, a fold of pages within a book) has to do with his incapacity to read Harry, to interpret what Harry embodies or even to see the mark of Harry’s mother’s love on his skin. That mark, as Dumbledore tells us, is “not a scar” and leaves “no visible sign” (216). The haptic feedback – the touch – that proves to be “agony” for Voldemort and Quirrell isn’t something that we, as readers, need fear – we’re protected, in a sense, by the opaque surface, the skin, of the pages before us. But it functions, nonetheless, as a form of transmission, an ionizing, organic ether, that the lightning-bolt scar on Harry’s forehead metonymically displaces and displays. The transformative power of that touch, the shift from the distracted reception of screened images to the proactive thoughtful connection to a living world, is what reading Harry Potter might just be about.