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Harry Potter and the Cultural Meme


I am pop-culture illiterate. Ask any one who worked with me at Metroland, anyone who’s expected me to recognize the snatch of an ’80s tune they were humming, or any of the several people who have threatened to lock me in a room until I’ve actually watched Star Wars.

This state has roots as far back as my awkward middle-school years, when the music I listened to consisted of my parents’ Beatles records, classical music, and some holdover children’s albums. It’s only marginally better in my adult manifestation as a folkie without a TV who watches only those movies that come to the Spectrum. The only differences are that I have a better idea of what I don’t know and the Internet serves as the CliffsNotes for some of the more important things I miss—key segments of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, for example.

I do not think never having watched a reality TV show makes me particularly noble, but neither does it trouble me much. It does make some conversations awkward, as I miss references to both the names of contestants on American Idol and lead actors in cinematic classics. Still, in the current world of niche marketing it’s more expected and accepted to have surrounded yourself with your own particular, specialized palette of culture. Most people assume, to a greater or lesser degree of accuracy, that I’m a veritable font of knowledge on some other topic.

This is one of the things that made anticipating, and then reading, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (No spoilers contained herein, I promise) particularly neat for me: I found myself voluntarily and enthusiastically (if not uncritically) part of a cultural trend. It was like a global “Big Read” (where someone tries to get a whole town to read the same book and discuss it), with no need for organizers.

While certainly not everyone I know has read the series, a majority have. They’re the only books that my mother, younger brother, and I have all read since we read books out-loud together as a family when we were kids. (My father doesn’t do fiction.) As my partners and I were in the process of reading Deathly Hallows (out-loud, as we’ve done the whole series), wherever we went there was someone to ask us what point we were at, to nod sagely, or to sympathize that we’d had to leave off at such-and-such a cliffhanger.

Perhaps to people who ride the waves of pop-culture more often, or who at least keep a toe dipped in that pool, experiencing this wasn’t such a revelation. Maybe it was only so neat to me because I have generally abstained from other things that would provide such a sense of common ground, such a cultural passport. (I’m reminded of a former colleague who said he primarily followed sports because it gave him something he could use to strike up conversations with strangers about.)

Still, I’d wager this was a particularly dramatic example. For one thing, I can think of very few cultural phenomena that have been experienced by such a wide age range at the same time, from very young kids through adults. There have always been some of us who appreciated and continued to read well-written novels aimed at kids. But the fact that there was a separate set of “adult” covers for the Harry Potter series (where “adult” in this case means less interesting and less colorful), silly as that was, was a clear sign that adults who were neither fantasy buffs nor parents were among the devoted.

I was grateful for the wizarding world’s generation-bridging power during my publishing class at the Summer Academy at the College of Saint Rose this July. I don’t generally work with teens, and I found myself quickly and acutely aware of how very different their worlds and mine were. Though they were an interested and well-behaved bunch, I frequently felt old, awkward or just at a loss for the right example or comment to use to connect to them. Their ages also ranged from 11 to 16, a monumentally wide spread.

Luckily, my class ran the week before the last Harry Potter book came out in July and it was one of the favorite topics of conversation on breaks. It offered a common ground not just for them and me, but among the students themselves. The shyest student was ready to weigh in when it came to topics like how well the movie versions represented the books or whether Snape was really evil or not. They all knew how and when they would be getting their copy of the final book. And on all counts, I was able, with none of the phoniness that adults usually exhibit when trying to be hip to the kids’ way, to join in.

It’s great to be happily different, not a slave to convention, and all that. I’m guessing more of my generation thinks of itself that way than not. It’s also nice, however, to be reminded that occasionally something besides the most basic human needs and responses can unite us.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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