On Re-Reading Harry Potter, Twenty Years Later

On the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, as many of us look back on our first meeting with the boy wizard, it seems appropriate to consider the topic of re-reading. Some will take this anniversary as an occasion to re-read, perhaps experiencing as an adult a book first experienced as a child. Many have already re-read that first book and all the others more times than they can count.

For some of us, re-reading the Harry Potter books has become a part of life like visiting family at Thanksgiving or going to church. Thanks to e-readers, many of us carry all seven books around at all times and relish the chance to delve into favorite passages while waiting for the bus or the dentist. Many of us know exactly where our hard copies of the books wait for us, at the ready on the shelf, and I suspect most of us can name without hesitation the chapters we turn to when we need strength or comfort or a reminder of who we are. Those of us who identify as readers likely also identify as re-readers. We learned in childhood the joy of returning to a much-loved book. Along with Harry Potter, other books and series have grown soft and ragged as we have read them until they literally fell to pieces.

Re-reading is an important kind of reading that doesn’t get a lot of attention. When we return to a book, we appreciate not just the story but how the story is told. A famous example from Harry Potter is J.K. Rowling’s strategic placement of the vanishing cabinet in Chamber of Secrets when she didn’t really need it until Half-Blood Prince, four books and seven years later. When they re-read the earlier book, fans appreciate the author’s deft management of detail, but they also learn something about how stories work. Most writers know the mantra, “the end must be in the beginning.” When thoughtful readers return to a book, they, too, know the end in the beginning, and they watch the author maneuver people and plots toward that end. Think how often in the very first book of the series Harry hears how he has his mother’s eyes.

Re-reading also offers an opportunity for self-reflection as people measure their own growth against books when they return to them. For example, between the first and fifth times through the series, a reader may become a parent and therefore understand Harry’s mother differently, or Ron’s. A reader may suffer unrequited love or struggle with a cruel administrator, both experiences that will alter relationships to characters and plots. And an older reader may discover that her values, her notions of friendship or of bravery, even her sense of self are rooted in the Harry Potter books.

As if Rowling anticipated how these books would be re-read, she artfully makes careful scrutiny of certain books central to the plot. Re-reading is essential in the sixth book in which a battered potions text bears evidence of much careful reading in the copious annotations inscribed by the Half-Blood Prince; enchanted with this textual artifact, a palimpsest of sorts, Harry reads and re-reads those notes, modeling the behavior of Rowling’s readers who pore over the unauthorized annotations on myriad fan sites and the authorized ones from canonical sources, such as Pottermore. Hermione is the character most frequently depicted reading, and she returns often to certain works, such as Bathilda Bagshot’s History of Magic. This book appears for the first time in Philosopher’s Stone and resurfaces throughout the series, moving out of the margins in Deathly Hallows. In this final book, Hermione keeps History of Magic in her magical handbag where it is always available for reference.

Deathly Hallows features several significant acts of re-reading, such as Harry’s many returns to Elphias Doge’s “Albus Dumbledore Remembered” and Rita Skeeter’s “Dumbledore—The Truth at Last?” The last book in the series also introduces the Tales of Beedle the Bard, a collection of stories that Harry and Hermione encounter for the first time and that Ron has already read many times, having grown up in a wizarding household. Interestingly, Ron’s experience of re-discovering these stories parallels that of real-world readers who find the Harry Potter books contain much more than they’d realized when they were younger. Throughout Deathly Hallows, all three characters re-read “The Tale of the Three Brothers,” and their analysis guides them as they weigh the search for horcurxes against the search for hallows. The tale also guides Harry, Ron, and Hermione as they assess the value of the three hallows. And astute readers will notice that re-reading the tale offers insight into the themes of the series.

The 2008 publication of the Tales of Beedle the Bard enables fans to emulate the characters as they read and re-read the tales. What’s more, there is a wickedly clever temporal dimension to this text-within-the-text: just as Rowling plants the vanishing cabinet long before Draco Malfoy needs it, she plants Tales of Beedle the Bard for readers to discover long before Dumbledore bequeaths the book to Hermione. When Deathly Hallows was published in 2007, no real person had ever read Tales of Beedle the Bard, but readers who come to that last book in the series now, may do so having already read the interpolated tales. For these readers, the first encounter with the tale in the final book of the series may already be an act of re-reading. Just as the third brother in “The Tale of the Three Brothers” greets Death as an old friend, readers great the tale as an old friend, as we do each book of the series.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is our oldest friend, one we’ve known for twenty years and by different names. It is a time-turner that carries us back to our younger selves, a pensieve that holds cherished memories, and a portkey that transports us to a magical home. It may not be for sale at Flourish and Blotts, but it is a magical book all the same, one that charms and transfigures us with each re-reading.

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