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Versha Sharma

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My Harry Potter Love Affair

Posted: 09/23/2011 1:24 pm

This is one in our 'Geek Like Me' series of columns exploring the nuances of geek culture.

I had just turned 14 when Harry, Ron and Hermione turned 14. It was the summer of 2000 and the fourth book in the series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, launched a thousand midnight release parties at bookstores for the first time in recent history. The Books-A-Million in my hometown of Alexandria, Louisiana, was one such bookstore, and though I hadn't yet read the first three books, my two best friends had no problem convincing my fantasy-loving middle school self that the party sounded like the coolest thing ever.

I bought the first book while they bought the fourth. Within a week, I had finished all four. Within two weeks, I was on the "Harry Potter for Grown-ups" listserv -- one of the more popular and prolific discussion lists the early fandom had ever seen -- and by the end of the summer, I was contributing to all sorts of online Potter fansites. I couldn't get enough. Countless nights that summer I risked my mother's wrath and stayed up on the computer until 3 a.m. reading fanfiction.

It's no stretch to say nerdiness is in vogue now. It hasn't always been the case. At 14 my best friend (the same one who took me to my first HP party) reluctantly told me the other kids in school mocked me behind my back because I went to the National Spelling Bee. I didn't really mind -- as far as adolescent bullying goes, it could have been a lot worse. But it was a different time, before Spellbound and the bee being broadcast on primetime cable. I was Hermione: totally and completely bookish, my bedroom dresser lined with trophies I won from summer reading competitions at the library; often made fun of for being such a nerd, and with the braces that poor young Hermione might have liked to have. My biggest crush in junior high, one of the popular kids, told me he liked me but was too embarrassed to ask me out. After all, I was on the speech-and-debate team.

I was also Ron: the extremely loyal sidekick, always living in the shadow of older siblings (because of course my older sister went to the National Spelling Bee -- twice).

I was Harry: growing up somewhere as somebody different and struggling to be comfortable in my own skin before realizing being different is kind of awesome. For Harry it was everything from his background -- his magic, his family, something to which he was born -- to being a physically dorky and scrawny adolescent. For me it was everything from my background -- my Indian family, my Hindu religion, in a hugely Southern Baptist town -- to being so skinny no matter what I ate, classmates constantly asked if I had an eating disorder.

At 18, I went to my first Harry and the Potters concert. The first band in the "wizard rock" movement has produced three studio albums of songs based around the books, perhaps the ultimate act of nerdery. I have since seen them live six times (including one memorable concert in Houston with their arch-nemeses, Draco and the Malfoys). A lot of the crowd has aged with me -- they perform fairly regularly in bars -- but there's still nothing quite like being in the middle of an all-ages crowd and screaming about how reading is cool.

While geeks are increasingly in fashion, the practice of explaining wizard rock to someone who's never even read Harry Potter doesn't lose its novelty; yes, real bands with real albums with lyrics crafted around a fictional series. Perhaps there's a slight tinge of embarrassment when the person you're explaining it to is your coworker or current boyfriend. But whatever, it's extremely entertaining -- just pick up the wizard rockumentary.

I was 19 when the penultimate book, Half-Blood Prince, was released. Having completed my first year of college, I was a resident advisor at nerd camp that summer: in charge of a group of bright young women spending a month taking courses 2-4 years above their calendar academic level. (I attended the camp as a student myself.) These kids were me, five years ago.

I bonded with them over the upcoming book; I bonded with elementary school kids with HP-inspired projects when I took a Teacher Cadet elective in high school. Potter was incorporated into many facets of my life. I never understood the backlash, and living in an extremely conservative part of the Bible Belt meant the occasional nearby book burning. Still passionate about reading -- and Potter made reading cool for so many -- the burnings caught my attention and led me to write essays and give speeches at state and national debate tournaments about censorship.

It wasn't always academic: I once walked into a pub off of Oxford Street in London to meet up with people I had previously only spoken to online, the Marlborough Head a.k.a. Snape's Pub, so named by London fandom because it looks like the Potions Master's dungeons. It ended up being one of the most fun party nights of my life. Nerds can drink. A lot.

When the final book came out, I was 21. The midnight release I attended was at a Waterstone's in Newcastle, England, just one hour from my beloved Jo Rowling's beloved Edinburgh. She is my role model for many reasons, not least of which is her incredible success with what her parents termed a useless college degree. I completed a pilgrimage while visiting the city, first going to the Elephant House where she wrote early chapters of Sorcerer's Stone and traversing her inspiring route until the posh Balmoral Hotel, where she penned the final words of Deathly Hallows.

I'm 25 now. The books have been a constant source of comfort and enjoyment, an unfailing happy pill through break-ups, school woes, job woes, and family stress. I work in journalism, a dream of mine for many years, because I believe, like Dumbledore, that "words are our most inexhaustible source of magic."

Like millions of other fans suffering from post-Potter depression, I'm sad it's over -- sad we have no new material (except Pottermore), sad it won't dominate pop culture the same way, but confident it will endure.

It's a story where a beaten-down misfit orphan saves his entire world because of the love he has for his family and friends, through the strength of his conviction. And it's the story of a cash-poor divorced mother of one with a French and Classics degree who becomes richer than the Queen of England through the strength of her imagination. Anyone who's ever felt a little bit different can't help but love the magic in that.

 
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