Widgets Magazine
The cultural phenomenon of Harry Potter
Students learn to play Quidditch, the fantastical sport in the popular Harry Potter series, during one of 255 classes offered by Stanford Splash this past weekend. (Courtesy of Michael Shaw)

The cultural phenomenon of Harry Potter

Icy raindrops wake me Saturday morning, splattering my face from the window I accidentally left open. The orange fluorescent letters next to my bed blink the depressing hour: 6:50. Thoughts of my approaching chem midterm and the pile of homework awaiting me on my desk make sleep impossible, but I can’t bring myself to start working this early. Instead, I pull down my favorite remedy for dreary days: “Harry Potter.”

Our generation’s obsession with Harry Potter seems inexhaustible. We throw Harry Potter parties with homemade butterbeer and pumpkin pasties, dress up to see the movies at midnight (yes, yours truly made it into this video back in 2011) and devour fan fictions online (thousands of people have written novels set in the world of Harry Potter like this one). We scour bookstores for replacements to assuage our addiction and find them lacking. Sometimes I even wake up with this pit of frustration in my stomach, tumbling back in time to when I was 11 years old and sobbed at my fancy birthday dinner in New York City because I realized that I hadn’t gotten my letter to Hogwarts.

So I’m a tad obsessed.

At Stanford, however, I’m not alone in my love affair with Harry Potter. Since arriving here, I’ve had multiple conversations about the books, with everyone from my roommate to my RA. People at Stanford love Harry Potter more than house elves loves butterbeer … which is to say, a lot. It’s a little crazy to think that, nine years after the final book of the series was released in 2007, the entire world – and certainly many at Stanford – remains enraptured with the series.

Stanford’s devotion to the Harry Potter series extends beyond happenstance conversations about our obsession with the series to actual institutionalized events. For example, the Stanford bookstore hosted a midnight release party for “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” a play coauthored by JK Rowling that was released this summer. Continuing the tale of Harry Potter by focusing on his inquisitive and troubled children, the play has already premiered with great critical success on the West End in London.

And, by the way, if you’re hoping to get tickets to see this show, keep dreaming. This summer, I set an alarm for the ungodly hour of 5:45 a.m., determined to purchase one of the 250,000 new tickets released for the play. Rather ingeniously, I must say, I opened the website on three separate devices, so that at 6 a.m., when I’m randomly placed in an online queue, I was only 19,373rd in line on my laptop, while I was 41,031st in line on my iPhone. I checked my laptop incessantly for five hours, watching that number creep from 19,373 to 15,011 to 10,007 to 97 … until finally, I was redirected to the site to purchase tickets, which proceeded to crash before I could purchase my tickets, and placed me back in the queue behind 300,000 people. Clearly, the addiction to Harry Potter hasn’t lessened.

Stanford also hosts its own Quidditch team, a phenomenon found across college campuses. The team practices three times a week, and contains three chasers, two beaters, one keeper and one seeker, just like in the books. Instead of a Quaffle, however, chasers throw around a volleyball. And since having beaters hit flying Bludgers at players would both be dangerous and physically impossible, the beaters throw dodge balls at chasers to prevent them from scoring. And since we are all, alas, Muggles, and flying winged balls are beyond our capabilities, a tennis ball must be used in place of a snitch.

Some colleges even teach classes on Harry Potter, though unfortunately I haven’t encountered any at Stanford yet. (I feel like it’s only a matter of time though … )

Can you think of any book that has had this much influence on the world? “Harry Potter,” tops at least 21% of Facebook users top 10 favorite books, making it the most influential book of our generation, even more than the Bible. It’s even been shown to increase tolerance in readers, meaning that it is not only a cultural symbol but also a social weapon.

Sometimes I imagine 70 years from now, when I’m wrinkled and grayed, I’ll be reading “Harry Potter” to my grandchildren. I’ll tell them how I spent a whole year speculating about Harry Potter after I finished the sixth book, arguing with my friends and family for hours over dinner, until I waited up till midnight to buy the seventh book, only to realize that I had guessed it all wrong. I’ll tell my grandchildren how I dressed up as Hermione and prayed every day for a letter from Hogwarts. Will “Harry Potter” be a classic in 70 years, the same way we might regard the “Chronicles of Narnia” series a classic today?

Think about it … Every classic we read today was once a hot new bestseller. When James Joyce wrote “Ulysses,” the Lost Generation in 1920s Paris devoured and critiqued it. When John Steinbeck wrote “East of Eden” in the 1950s, housewives and professors alike read it. Going back to the 1600s, Shakespeare was the hottest new thing. And if we want to get even more retrospective, Sophocles’ “Antigone” was the one of most popular plays in fifth-century ancient Greece. Now, those books have become works of art; some of their first editions are worth thousands of dollars today. While wandering through an antiquarian fair in England once, I found a signed copy of “The Great Gatsby” worth over 200,000 dollars!

Isn’t it crazy to think that the battered copy of “Harry Potter” sitting on your bookshelf could be a piece of art a few hundred years from now, worth thousands of dollars (depending on the number of first edition copies left in circulation)? Do you think, 1,000 years from now, we’ll still be reading Harry Potter, writing essays about what it evokes about the 21st-century in the same way that we analyze the “Iliad” today?

But Harry Potter hasn’t only deeply influenced our coming-of-age; it also echoes our real lives. Hogwarts essentially consists of hundreds of students away from their families, learning from brilliant professors at the premier institution of the country. Sound familiar? If we ignore the age differences (and let’s face it, Harry is exceptionally mature for an 11-year-old), Stanford and Hogwarts have a shocking number of similarities. If, you know, “Harry Potter” were set in Northern California instead of Scotland and Hogwarts looked like a country club instead of a castle. But bear with me.

  1. Stanford is pretty magical. Okay, we might not get to transfigure hedgehogs into pincushions, but our classmates have achieved some pretty magical things. Not naming any names, but I mean, we do have Olympic Gold medalists in our class …
  2. Our Stanford weather is basically its own Expecto Patronum. Can you imagine a dementor sunbathing in California? I didn’t think so.
  3. Instead of having Potions class in the dungeons, we have chemistry in the slightly more palatable eyesore Mudd. At least our professors aren’t as scary as Professor Snape.
  4. Instead of toiling through Arithmancy, Hermione would definitely be acing CS.
  5. Hagrid would love it here; we are “the Farm,” after all!
  6. Much like Hogwarts students who never venture off campus besides an occasional Hogsmeade trip, we all live in our Stanford bubble.

Even if you do not see much similarity between Stanford and Hogwarts, the fact remains that few books have been more influential on our generation than the “Harry Potter” series. Whether you love the books or hate the books, the “Harry Potter” culture has shaped our generation. It’s become such a powerful cultural phenomenon that even if Hogwarts doesn’t technically exist (though personally I haven’t given up my hopes yet), the world of Harry Potter has been brought alive by our generation’s devotion to the series. As JK Rowling herself brilliantly put it in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

 

Contact Caroline Dunn at cwdunn98 ‘at’ stanford.edu.