‘You haven’t read Harry Potter?!’ and other things people tease me about.

I’ve never read Harry Potter. There. I said it. While it has been tempted to go see the films so I can cheat in writing workshops and pretend like I know the plot, I haven’t done that either. I have no intention of ever reading Harry Potter. To anyone who would like me to read J.K. Rowling’s work, I will go on the record as saying I am sure she is fabulous. She is clearly more fabulous than I am because she is the ninth most read fiction writer in the history of writing and I am sitting in my yellow spare room with an old laptop on my lap trying to figure out ideas for this stupid blog in the hopes of one day becoming at least the 100,000th most read non-fiction writer in history.

The last fiction book I read was Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, which is technically a collection of short stories, so it may not count. Read sometime in the early 90s, to this day, it remains one of my favorite books of all time. In 1980, Carl Sagan wrote, “Mars has become a kind of mythic arena onto which we have projected our Earthly hopes and fears.” The Martian Chronicles was the epitome of this. The emotional truth buzzing in the experience of every person that set foot on that planet terrified me. It was an emotional truth I could relate to and it was deeply human.

I’ve tried to read a lot of literary fiction since then, but have struggled to connect with any of it. Some part of me is constantly screaming “This isn’t real!” “Why do I have to know this story if it didn’t really happen?!” There is some kind of autistic rigidity to my thinking here that I will wholly cop to. I am ashamed to admit, I even stopped reading To Kill a Mockingbird because nothing important seemed to hurry up and happen by the end of chapter three. Yes, I agree. That’s fucked up.

What I am attracted to are personal stories of truth and perseverance. The truth of A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn and the perseverance of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63, rise to the top as the pinnacle in their respective regard. A good “you can’t make this shit up” book about a life fearlessly led is as comforting as a cold compress on a fevered forehead. It inspires me to get my white, privileged ass out of bed and keep going.

But while I do not read J.K. Rowling, I can’t help but admire her. Quidditch didn’t exist before she created it and now it is played all over the world. The word “muggle” was added to Oxford English Dictionary in 2003 and while the word existed before Ms. Rowling, it never meant “a person without magical powers” before she defined it as such. These concepts had only existed in a fictional world, but now they are a part of our non-fiction reality. But more profoundly, social science research has shown that kids who read Harry Potter books have improved attitudes towards immigrants, LGBT, and refugees and show more empathy towards marginalized groups. Harry fights for a world free of social inequalities by trying to understand, rather than reject, people that are different. Research has shown that literary engagement with life’s social, cultural and psychological complexities have a positive impact on child development. In fact, as it turns out, reading literary fiction does a better job at helping people perspective take than non-fiction does and while the researchers didn’t use a book about the Civil Rights Movement as their non-fiction control, as a social-justice psychologist, this finding forces me to pause my irrational rejection of the genre and take note.

As a final challenge to this literary slap in the face, I asked my fourteen-year-old niece, who has read Harry Potter, “What do you think is the most important message of the book?” Her response: “I think it really shows the power of friendship and through all the hardships the characters go through, the one constant is their friendships.” That’s all the proof I need.

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