Harry Potter and the Curse of Narrative Memory


No spoilers here for Deathly Hallows – I’m only 8 chapters in, and don’t think anything revealed herein will do anything but jog memories for people who’ve read the previous books. And that’s what I’ve been thinking about – how do the Harry Potter books negotiate the need to build upon intricate narrative information in books that many readers last read two years ago, and in some instances installments dating back almost ten years? This ties into a broader issue I’ve been exploring in my project on television storytelling, looking at how serial narration grapples with the problem of remembering.

For the Potter books, there seem to be three categories of potential readers: committed fans who have read the first six numerous times and tapped into paratextual websites, companion books, films, etc.; regular readers who have followed the books’ release schedule but not much more beyond the original books once through; and future readers who will read the series sequentially without the gaps forced by the inconvenience of the writing process. I fall firmly into the regular reader camp – I’ve read the books as they were released (I started in 1999, so the first three were read in quick succession), only occasionally looked at websites, and never seen the films due to my abject hatred for Chris Columbus.

When DH presents some narrative information alluding to previous books, committed fans and future readers can draw upon their comparatively recent or repeated journeys through the series to place references and fill in gaps. But regular readers like myself have to try to remember what Rowling’s alluding to. In some instances she explains the references quickly enough – I only found myself briefly bewildered by who was marrying whom in mixing up the couplings as Bill & Tonks and Fleur & Lupin before the book clarified matters. But my own parentally-addled brain has no real memory of who Mundungus Fletcher is, and after 150 pages I haven’t gotten much clarified. I contrast this with my one recent deviation from regular reading–I’ve just read Sorcerer’s Stone to my daughter–which has allowed me to appreciate allusions to previously forgotten moments like Hagrid’s first introduction to the Dursleys or Norbert(a) the dragon. How many other callbacks to previous novels have simply flown over my head thus far?

Another conundrum for us regular readers – while there are oodles of websites available to help us forgetful types remember the most minute details from the books, I assume that many have now been updated to reflect the revised canon of the complete series. Again, the non-simultaneous nature of reading is a curse here, as the faster (and/or pirate downloading) readers can work to revise fansites faster than many can read the book! Since I’m my own local expert, I’m stuck in the in-between moment of not knowing what I’m forgetting and not trusting that I can explore the web without revealing things that I don’t even know are revealable.

What this means is that the Potter books, and perhaps many book series with one master story arc, are designed ideally not to be read as they are published, but rather aiming toward the immortality of future readers to approach as they choose. Similar to serial fiction of the 19th century, the publication acknowledges the limits of memory with some redundancy & recapping, but ultimately the goal is for coherence of the whole rather than satisfaction with each part along the way. And this is precisely the opposite of most television, where the regular (and intermittent) viewer of each weekly episode rules the day – when producers try to tell long-form stories that work against episodic pleasure and arcing clarity, they’re either punished by their networks (Alias), railed against by fans (Lost), or must dwell in the margins of popularity (The Wire). In another generation, will these cultural norms have shifted sufficiently that the regular viewer can be treated as the least important like with Harry Potter? Stay tuned…


5 Responses to “Harry Potter and the Curse of Narrative Memory”

  1. 1 rbhardy3rd

    You’ve just read “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” (as we call it in England) to a five-year old. The question is: Will you continue to read the books to her right up through “Deathly Hallows” while she is still a little girl? Are the later books as appropriate for younger children? One of the things that the drawn-out publication history has done has been to allow the original readers to mature along with Harry. What are the implications for the future audience of a series in which the main character starts out as a relatively pleasant eleven-year old and ends up as a sullen, angry, Cho-snogging, seventeen-year old bent on revenge? What are the eager elementary school readers of the future going to make of the shift from Dahlian to Orwellian?

    Other fictional characters have grown up over the course of a series of books—Anne Shirley, Laura Ingalls, Romona—but they have continued to inhabit more or less the same nostalgic world, or haven’t grown up all that much. What does it say about childhood, present and future, that children of an age for “Romona Quimby, Age 8,” are now reading “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”?

  2. Agreed that this is a serious issue for the series. In our own family, we decided to read the first book to our six-year-old (Rob – she does age even when you don’t see her!) who’s an ambitious reader, and we’ll work through the next few slowly. I doubt we’ll read book 5 or beyond until she’s 8 or 9. But I can say that many of her peers have been read all of the books, and we know 8-year-olds who’ve read them all themselves. And of course the films are widely seen by kids even younger, which makes my head hurt (parents should be forbidden from letting their children see the work of Chris Columbus at impressionable ages!).

    On a less personal level, this is a challenge of the series for future readers – if a kid can burn through the series in a few months, what’s the right age for that? I agree that HBP and DH are not kids’ fare, but try to tell a Potterphilic 8-year-old that. What is the ideal age for beginning & ending the series, and how can that be “enforced” for enthusiastic kids?

  3. 3 bobrehak

    Chiming in here: last night, around p. 100 of Deathly Hallows, I had to open up the Mac and check the Harry Potter Lexicon to remind myself about Horcruxes. Not to seem like a total newb — of course I know what a Horcrux *is*, I keep several around the house for random soul-storage — but as Book 7’s narrative came into focus I realized it would help greatly to know all the detailed ins & outs, the metaphysical minutiae, the diegetic fine print, as it were, in order to extract all the anticipatory pleasure and payoff from the story. Hence the recourse to an online database.

    Problem is, once at the HP Lexicon, I decided to touch up my memory of Horace Slughorn and a few other characters and magical technologies. Before long I had spent more time back-reading on the website than forward-reading in the new book; and when I finally shut the laptop and reopened the book, I had the unpleasant sense (fortunately temporary) that I wasn’t reading a story so much as a complex weave of references. It had gotten all hypertexty rather than old-fashioned-texty, which I now realize is one of the big pleasures in lying back and cracking open a fat wedge of bound paper. So, an occasion to reflect on the differences — in this case, somewhat antagonistic rather than mutually-supporting — between “old” and “new” modes of reading.

    Your post on narrative complexity is dead on, Jason, and I’d only add that Book 7 (which I’m quite enjoying, btw) perhaps suffers from the need to bring it all together — to celebrate the series’ past by reiterating the long road we’ve all traveled, and rewarding readers with keen-enough memories to actually recognize everything. (Scene in point — Harry going through his trunk of school supplies and turning up artifacts used in previous installments.) Reminds me of my absolute-favorite episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, “All Good Things” (1994), which, like Deathly Hallows, was the concluding chapter of seven Trek “chapters” (seasons). The time-hopping narrative of that two-parter provided opportunities for the writers (Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore, if I remember correctly) to reflect on TNG’s present, its past (literally the first episode of the first season, “Encounter at Farpoint”), and its future (set 25 years on). The result was not just a fangasm, implicitly promising Trek as an eternal experience of viewing/reading pleasure, but a demonstration of how hard it can be for “final chapters” of long-running serial dramas to balance the necessity of recapping/doing justice to the whole corpus with telling a satisfying, self-contained story specific to that particular installment. TNG and HP seem to have done this well; Pirates of the Caribbean, I’d argue, did not. (As for Star Wars, George Lucas tried to avoid the problem by telling his stories out of order — and Episodes 1-3 still seemed turgidly mired by the demands of backstory.)

    Boiling this all down: I wonder if serial narratives grow denser/heavier as they are being told, building toward that culminating experience in which everything pays off. Turning to the point you raise in your final paragraphs (“the Potter books, and perhaps many book series with one master story arc, are designed ideally not to be read as they are published, but rather aiming toward the immortality of future readers to approach as they choose”), I’d be interested to know how you see this possibility interacting with HP’s emphatic “sequencing” as seen in the spines’ 1-7 numbering, the “Hogwarts, Year X” bumpers, etc. Wouldn’t this always impose a certain order of engagement? Or are you meaning something else? My own speculation is that we will develop tools for textual analysis (perhaps even computer-assisted reference-counting schema) to measure the intertextual density of each installment, and hence be able — in a fashion similar to carbon-dating — to definitively trace an installment to its original moment of release. (Thought experiment: picking two episodes of Lost, one from season one and one from season three, do there exist “marks” by which each episode’s actual sequential home can be identified? or does Lost’s storytelling scheme confound all chronology?)

  4. Bob – thanks for the interesting comments. I didn’t mean to suggest that the individual books aren’t designed to be sufficiently self-contained or bounded objects – it’s not just one 450 or so chapter book, as each book (except perhaps the last) has its clear arc involving the school year, a new DADA teacher, etc. Rather the increasing density of the storyworld, which I found ramped up around book 5, does require readers to read the new volume while “rereading” previous ones. That rereading can be internal for the diehards who know the canon well or the future readers who are reading them sequentially without gaps, or assisted by a community – the HP Lexicon surfing you describe, or asking a family member “who was Fletcher again?” I did a bit of pre-emptive rereading – a few days before DH was published, I read some summaries of HBP online, and revisited entries on Horcruxes, knowing that they’d be a major plot point.

    And I agree that DH does serve as a love-letter to narrative memories, giving each hero a moment to shine and referencing the past with retrospective affection. But I’ll post more about that soon…

  5. I agree with you! its a great book, but too bad it ends…I feel so empty putting it down after so many years waiting for it…

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