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why hannibal lecter can't lick pikachu
or, when harry met jar-jar
by jael mchenry (@JaelMcHenry)
pop culture

I'm extremely excited about Harry Potter. I love Harry Potter. I am overcome with an overwhelming melange of emotions -- excitement, jealousy, pride, longing, puzzlement, and appreciation -- when I think about Harry Potter.

First off, I know Harry Potter doesn't exist. (This isn't like being in love with Hank Stuever.) Second, I have never picked up a Harry Potter book and felt the soft pages and hard cover against my fingers, let alone read one. I have a vague awareness that there are four books, but I can only name the most recent. I don't know when the first was released, how frequently they've come out, how much Barnes & Noble charges for them. I know almost none of the characters, none of the plotlines, none of the intriguing details that define the magical world.

I do know this:

People are reading.

And they're not just picking up used books four-for-a-quarter at garage sales or placing the occasional lunch-hour order on amazon. They are turning out, chomping at the figurative bit in anticipation of the book's release, pounding the pavement to get in line at the firstavailablesecond, like they would for a Britney Spears album or tickets to The Phantom Menace. And when people wait in line for this kind of thing, the line itself becomes a phenomenon, a community, its own eager little world.

The release of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was an Event. One of the key elements of an Event is the strict definition of a day starting at one minute after midnight; many bookstores sold their first copy of the book during that precious first minute. There were costumes, for heaven's sake. Were there costumes at the release of Hannibal, Thomas Harris' long-awaited sequel to The Silence of the Lambs? I don't think so. But for Harry, there were robes and wands and stick-on tattoos. It was an Event.

Does the Event-ness of Harry Potter overcome the precarious position of The Book in pop culture? Of course not. Do the 700-odd pages of Goblet overcome the equally popular trend of mindless, squeaking, epileptic-fit-inducing Pokemon cartoons? Of course not. But does it make me feel good about the future of books and reading? Absolutely.

Books and movies are very different things. I doubt anyone will oppose me on this. ("No, Jael, a series of images on a screen for 120 minutes can render the same emotions, actions, characters, and plot as a series of words stretching out over 300 pages or more! Really!") And they are very different things, also, to the average pop culture participant.

Books aren't very community-building these days. Oprah's book club shenanigans aside, it's rare for a group of people to read a book and then discuss it. It happens, yes. Best-selling books -- Memoirs of a Geisha, The Perfect Storm, Hannibal -- can be a topic of discussion in the average workplace or on the average bus. However, you're likely to have a lot better luck asking the man on the street what he thought of X-Men than what he thought of Vox. You don't coyly approach an attractive stranger to ask him out for dinner and a book. You don't flip through the channels and pause at an interesting trailer for the latest book.

A book is a solitary act. You write it alone, you read it alone. A movie is a community act, a sharing, a collaboration. It takes one person to write a book and one person to read it. It takes 50 people or more -- writer, actors, producers, cameramen, editors, director, etc. etc. -- to put together a movie, and although one person can view it, when's the last time you went to a movie by yourself and sat in an empty theatre? Never.

What does this all mean? Nothing. It means I'll never be as famous as Gwyneth Paltrow, but it gives me hope I might one day be as famous as J.K. Rowling. Which is cool. Because authors can walk down the street. If you're a writer, your face is your own; if you're an actor, it belongs to someone -- everyone -- else.

On the other hand, a few years ago, Michael Crichton was in the 50 Most Beautiful People issue of People.

So there's hope for me yet.


Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry

more about jael mchenry


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adam kraemer
8.4.00 @ 3:34p

No, Jael, a series of images on a screen for 120 minutes can render the same emotions, actions, characters, and plot as a series of words stretching out over 300 pages or more! Really!

jael mchenry
8.4.00 @ 4:21p

I knew if anyone would oppose me, Adam, it would be you...

adam kraemer
8.7.00 @ 2:26p

No I wouldn't.

jael mchenry
8.7.00 @ 6:41p


adam kraemer
8.8.00 @ 10:11a

Well, I'd say this conversation seems to be deteriorating, but since I started it, obviously I'm wrong.

On an actual note, one thing you didn't address, Jael, is when they make a book adaptation of a movie. That's not always better (trust me).

lila snow
8.13.00 @ 5:24a

My bet is that when the Harry Potter movie comes out, there'll be even longer lines. And that's really sad. Or not. Who cares whether everyone rushes out to see the damned thing. I'm not making any money off of any of it, and I'm still only at the part where Mad-Eye Mooney changes Malfoy into a rabbit, so don't tell me how it ends.

russ carr
1.2.01 @ 5:46p

I must be enlightened. I saw X-Men and read Vox. I enjoyed X-Men more because it was something outside my experience, whereas I, in my misspent post-collegiate youth, lived every minute of Vox long before Nicholson Baker wrote it all down, the nosy bastard. Sure, books were involved. I read William Blake to her; she read Anais Nin to me.A solitary act that wasn't solitary. I gave away the copy of Vox that she sent me, later. But I read it, first.

jael mchenry
1.3.01 @ 11:01a

Interesting, Russ. Like you, I often like things better if they're farther from my own experience. Maybe because it's easier to convince me that other people's lives are more difficult, interesting, challenging, fascinating, eventful, or important than my own. I mean, mutants. C'mon. That's gotta be tough.

Or is it the opposite? Do I prefer watching/reading about other people out of a desire to consider my own life unique, and unlived by other people of my demographic profile?

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