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Old Book


As a kid, my year revolved around Summer. I longed for June to come and dreaded the approach of September. As an adult, the months tend to bleed together because we don’t get that big summer break. (Unless you’re a teacher. And then you need that break.) I suppose the effect is magnified for me since I live in Southern California, where the change of seasons is very subtle. But, on my walk this morning, it was fifty-nine degrees instead eighty (as it has been the last month), and as I savored that first crisp bite of autumn, it got me thinking about my tradition of re-listening to the Harry Potter audiobooks each fall.

Each of the seven novels follows a typical academic school year. In retrospect, it does seem convenient (and particularly evil) that Voldemort always saves his gnarliest plans for finals week. But if you can get past that, you’ll see the genius in the structure. Starting with crossing the threshold to Platform 9 ¾ to board the Hogwarts Express, the school year (and the plot of each novel) is rife with rituals that mark the passage of time: The Sorting Ceremony. The Halloween Feast. The Christmas and Easter holidays. And, at last, final exams and lounging out on the grounds in view of the giant squid. As a reader, I always look forward to those rituals. Because they’re so familiar, they connect me with the story and the characters in a deeper way; we all dread tests and look forward to holidays. This is probably why TV series usually have holiday-themed episodes.


As a writer, I envy (and try to emulate) J.K. Rowling’s mastery of timeline. In a few paragraphs at the top of a chapter, she can breeze through an uneventful month. Or, she can break out her magnifying glass and slow the action down to real time. By using rituals and holidays as a shorthand to mark the time, she pulls it off without jarring the reader. The lake freezes over, Hagrid hauls twelve pine trees into the Great Hall, and BOOM. It’s Christmas. Doesn’t matter if the Halloween feast happened four pages ago. We’re in. It’s easy to do this in a movie, but more difficult in a book. Speaking of movies, the best change-of-seasons motif in the series, IMHO, is Alfonso Cuaron’s use of the Whomping Willow in Prisoner of Azkaban. Remember when fall turns winter and the tree loses all its leaves and “shivers?” Genius.


But back on point: time in real life vs. time in books. A good book makes me want to live more. Why is that? Well, probably because the boring parts have all been cut out. Life in books is an assemblage of the most exciting moments. Like a highlight reel of the characters’ lives. And, in the case of the Wizarding World, even the status quo is filled with a disproportionate dose of magic and wonder. But books begin and end. We can check our place and see how far we’ve come and how far we have to go, down to the page number. Life isn’t like that. Life is a series of interconnected NOWs that begin before we’re ready and end without our consent. Books create an illusion of control that is satisfying to the point of becoming addictive. For example, I just had the pleasure of reading The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner. It’s coming out in 2016 and I cannot recommend it highly enough. It’s right up there on my Emotionally Moving bookshelf next to Bridge to Terabithia and All The Pretty Horses. Anyway, the book was so good that, when I got to the last fifty pages, I found myself procrastinating finishing it. I didn’t want the world of the book to end. You get to the last page, and then it’s over, and then the Author is thanking people and you’re like WTF MY HEART IS BROKEN YOU BASTARD but it doesn’t matter. There’s no more book.

Case in point: do you remember finishing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows? Do you remember how it wrecked you for, like, a month? That wasn’t just the end of a book—that was the end of a whole world. And so many people couldn’t bear it that they built two theme parks and a studio museum. THAT’S the power of time in books.

So, back to my walk this morning. I feel that nip of cool air and something twingey happens in my chest and I’m not sure if it’s anticipation or nostalgia. And then I realize: when those two feelings merge—that’s being in the moment. That’s happiness. That’s contentment. That’s being okay with whatever page you’re on, regardless of how many you’ve read or how many are left. That is the power of a great book, when it can make you want to live the life you already have. To live it more and better. That’s Hogwarts Time.

It’s why I re-listen to Harry Potter every year. Those books remind me not just who I want to be, but who I was, and who I am. And how I want to do that for not only my readers, but for everyone in my life.


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Jeff Garvin

Author of SYMPTOMS OF BEING HUMAN. Vegan, Gryffindor, aspiring revolutionary.

Comments (3)

  • The Massachusetts Jeff


    This great piece of writing hits home for me in a number of ways. One is that I am just wrapping up the last of the Harry Potter books with my students. Perhaps the best part of my job, is the idea that I get to re-live moments, like the scene where Voldermort casts the killing curse on Harry; vicarously I get to do it all over again.
    Secondly, one of the things I have been observing of Rowling is that she is just a master of paralell structure: not just how to use it, but also how to break it for incredibly powerful effect. For example, in the final book, we get this sense of a year passing. But it intensifies Harry’s isolation, that it is not through the long-enjoyed rituals in the earlier books: During Fall, they are cold and miserable; during Winter they are freezing alone, On Christmas Eve they are in a grave yard. Finally, the stuff about time. I have been blogging about and pondering the idea that there is time, and then there is Time; or as Madilene L’Engle says, there is chronus, and then there is Karios. (Sorry if I murdered the spelling there) Put differently: one definition of eternity is normal time, extending on forever. But there is a different, perhaps better sense of eternity, when a moment just stretches itself out on some other axis…


  • Jeff Garvin


    Thank you, Jeff. I enjoyed your analysis very much. And I need to read AWIT again!


  • The Massachusetts Jeff


    For the record, the Chronus/ Kairos thing wasn’t in Wrinkle, I don’t think… It was either some of her YA fiction or her theology books.


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