I visited a farmers market in a small country Victorian town last weekend, and one of the stalls was selling a mobile featuring signs pointing to Hogwarts, Gryffindor, Slytherin …
I thought, “I know exactly what all of those signs mean.”
A week earlier, a local bookstore had held a Harry Potter competition, and I’d begged my son, who is also reading the series, to enter. If only it had been open to middle aged fans.
Since (finally!) starting to read JK Rowling’s eponymous books, I’ve begun to feel like I’m part of a special, very large club. And I’m surprised by how much I’m liking that. Suddenly, I understand the many, many references to Harry Potter that before I had hardly noticed. Now I can see is that the bespectacled young wizard is everywhere.
It has made me realised how popular culture manages to bring people together, and make them feel like they are part of something bigger. And that as social beings, that is more important than we might think.
The same thought also occurred to me when my local council held fireworks on Australia Day. While I wish the date would be changed in line with the requests of Australia’s Indigenous communities, I thought there was no harm in walking with my nine-year-old son to the lake nearby to see the fireworks. Before they, I marvelled at how silly we were to be gathering to look at little explosions in the night sky.
I also thought about what a waste of money fireworks were, at a time when the nation was in pain during the terrible bush fires that have engulfed parts of Victoria and New South Wales, and when so many feared this and other consequences of global warming.
But when they started, there was a kind of group excitement that took over from my cynicism, and I realised what a lovely thing it is to sit with neighbours and enjoy a visual spectacle. We were all looking in the same direction, and children adults alike were gasping with joy and surprise. Against my better judgement, I felt happy, and saw that everyone surrounding me was, too.
I realised we’re all desperate to be united, whether in appreciation of the simple (although expensive) joy of fireworks, or to celebrate Harry Potter.
Our desire to unite can also be detected in the rise of reality television. What are these programs if not opportunities to watch and talk about others, to peer into the lives and behaviour of people who have chosen to bare themselves, both literally in the case of Love Island, and metaphorically, on the small screen? In offices around Australia, we take salacious joy in talking and laughing about reality show contestants the next day, whether we are choosing our favourite hopefuls on The Bachelor or debriefing after a particularly scandalous dinner party on Married at First Sight. There is something irresistible about uniting to watch and cast judgement about the lives, choices and attitudes of others.
Then there are shows like Game of Thrones, that it seems like everyone is watching at the same time. The fact that so many people are watching it makes it even more appealing, beyond the quality of its story or production. Not only can we enjoy the show, but that happiness can be extended when we compare notes with others, and through the sense that we are not alone in enjoying it.
When it comes to books, I am often tempted to read blockbusters that regularly appear in popular culture, so that I can understand what the fuss is about. I read Jane Eyre to find out for good what everyone was talking about, and had been talking about for a very long time; I recently finished The Handmaid’s Tale and immediately saw why everyone was shocked by how Margaret Atwood’s dystopia, written decades ago, touched on very modern truths; and I felt that it was important to have read To Kill a Mockingbird so I can understand what is being said when it is referenced in discussions of race and prejudice today.
The beauty of books lies in that there continue to be reasons for them to keep appearing in modern life long after they are written and published. Readers can not only feel united with contemporary readers by their enjoyment of a novel or obsession with a certain character, but also with those who lived long ago.
More recently, The Dry brought together readers, from the literary to the mainstream, in Australia and beyond. It would have been a shame to miss out on the many conversations about Jane Harper’s debut. Similarly, I was happy to have read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and The Rosie Project, books which stimulated conversation, and in the case of Graeme Simsion’s books, several follow ups.
Of course, there are many literary ‘clubs’ that I have yet to join. Some which I’m looking forward to being part of are Neil Gaiman’s, to understand why he is a figure of such admiration, attracting attention and adoration on social media, and the readers of Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, to understand why it became such a seminal work. I expect these books to unlock new understandings that I will be able to share with all of the readers that have come before me.
But for now I’m midway through Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and deciding whether I would belong to Gryffindor, Slytherin, Ravenclaw or Hufflepuff so I can update my Twitter bio accordingly. After that, perhaps I’ll try to book tickets to the stage show …