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…
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