Confession: I don’t really know who I am without books. Reading has been one of my most definitive and formative hobbies since I became the first kid in my kindergarten class to develop the skill. Now, as a grad student studying literature, reading is both my job and my escape.
It wasn’t really until my eighth birthday, though, that a book truly enchanted me. On November 21, 1999, I received Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as a birthday gift from a family friend, and I was forever changed.
Without a doubt, the two most influential women in my life have been my mother and J.K. Rowling. Rowling gave me an imaginary world that has been my second home since childhood. It has seen me grow from a little girl to a young woman. My entire adolescence is colored by memories of Harry Potter. Spending my 10th birthday in a chilly movie theater to see Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Lying awake in bed, afraid to fall asleep because I was worried about being attacked by Sirius Black (before I realized he was a good guy). Sprawling in the aisles of Barnes and Noble for hours, waiting for the midnight release of the final book in the series. Passing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows back and forth chapter-by-chapter during a 13-hour reading marathon with my mom. Reading the entire series aloud to my best friend in our dorm room. Writing a 65-page thesis project on the literary merits of the series during my senior year of college. It is simply impossible to escape the massive influence Rowling’s books have had on my life.
In retrospect, it’s hard for me to identify what enthralled me so about these books. Perhaps it was identifying with Harry as an only child, or seeing myself in Hermione’s bossy, brainy personality. Now, when I return to these books, I’m mesmerized by the way Rowling weaves together humor and tragedy in her realistic telling of a fantastical story. I can’t read Harry’s horrifyingly awkward first date chapter in Order of the Phoenix without laughing to myself just as much as I can’t keep tears from my eyes as I read the somber scenes in the Forbidden Forest as Harry prepares to sacrifice himself in Deathly Hallows. Though I first connected with these characters as an eight-year-old, the adult me can’t help but return time and again to a story that awes me with its complexity.
I am happy to be a product of a literary life. If I’d never read Harry Potter, I may have never read works of Charlotte Bronte or Arthur Miller or William Faulkner or Louisa May Alcott or Gillian Flynn or Judy Blume or Stephen King or Kate Chopin or Ernest Hemingway or Flannery O’Connor. I might not have gotten a Bachelor’s degree in Pop Culture Studies or been on the path toward becoming an English professor. I might have never followed Daniel Radcliffe to Broadway (twice). I might have missed out on some of my closest friendships, both with the characters on the pages of these books and the real life friends I grew closer to in our shared affection for Rowling’s creation.
To me, there is no better gift than a good book. To J.K. Rowling, the woman who wrote so many beautiful words, I can only say thank you. You have made me who I am today.
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Brenna Sherrill is currently pursuing an MA in English literature at Western Kentucky University. Brenna received her BA in Popular Culture Studies in May 2014 from WKU where she completed an undergraduate thesis project addressing the literary merits of the Harry Potter book series. Among other things, Brenna enjoys binge-watching TV shows and cuddling with her cats. You can follow Brenna’s thoughts on all things personal and pop culture at brennasherrill.wordpress.com.
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