Special Report

Potter Plants

Live from Georgetown, a midnight release party.

By 7.24.07

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WASHINGTON -- I'd like to start by clarifying: I am not one of those rabid Harry Potter fans. I'm not a member of one of those online fan communities, I am not one to dress up in costume and, until Friday, I had never been to one of the fabled midnight release parties.

A midnight release party, for those of you who have been living under a rock for the past ten years, is a festival held at bookstores the world over for Potter-philes who can't wait until morning to get their fix of the boy wizard. With each release, the books are embargoed and don't go on sale until a set date. Booksellers take that literally, and at 12:01 a.m. July 21, copies of the seventh and last Harry Potter Book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, went on sale.

My roommate and I are casual Potter fans, and we decided a few weeks ago that it would be fun to go to the party. It was the last one, we reasoned, and though I tend to think the books are a bit over hyped and overrated, it seemed like the event was a cultural phenomenon not to be missed. Besides, we would have the added fun of watching all the little kids compete for the best costume prize.

When we arrived at the M Street store in Georgetown at 10:40 p.m., crowds were already milling about. But, to our surprise, most of the audience was our age, with the exception of a few dozen middle schoolers accompanied by their long-suffering, Pottered-out parents.

"So much for our idea of watching all the little kids," my roommate muttered to me.

Most people were in costume, even if it was only a pair of Harry's trademark glasses, which a Barnes and Noble employee was handing out, or a sticker shaped like the hero's distinctive lightning bolt scar.

There were some, however, who had taken their costumes to a whole new level, like Reagan from Arlington and her neighbor, Jeremy. Reagan was costumed as the witch Bellatrix Lestrange (played in the Potter movies by Helena Bonham Carter). Her costume was a lacy, sophisticated black dress paired with gloves and stockings that she said she'd been working on all week. Jeremy, meanwhile, decided to come to the party as the Harry Potter series' friendly giant, Hagrid. In addition to wearing a wig and giant beard, this entailed his creating a set of homemade stilts out of $30 worth of supplies from Home Depot.

"I try not to walk around too much," he said as he wobbled above our heads. "I did make it here from the parking garage, though."

AFTER ABOUT AN HOUR of waiting around, reading magazines, and feeling out of place as people rushed around playing a Harry Potter scavenger hunt or engaged in Harry Potter trivia, we heard the woman in charge announce that it was almost midnight. There was a raffle to see who would receive the very first copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The little girl who won began jumping up and down with excitement as she was escorted to the front of the line, despite glares from the parents of the not so lucky children. One especially venomous gaze came from a mother with a child dressed as Draco Malfoy, the school bully of the Potter stories. I didn't feel any sympathy for the two of them, however, since I had seen her shoving kids aside during the scavenger hunt to ensure her son's victory.

We began to get restless, shifting in our spots as cashiers and store employees began shouting aloud the countdown to 12:01, that magic minute when the cash registers would open and the pre-bagged books would be handed over the counter into our eager arms. By that time, even I had succumbed to the spell cast by the boy wizard, and I was counting aloud and smiling at strangers.

What exactly happened? I'm not sure, but I expect it had something to do with letting go of my pretensions and admitting that I, too, couldn't wait to find out what happens to Harry in the end of these novels.

Say what you will about Potter (and I've said plenty,) but let's face it: where in this day and age do you see such excitement over a book? When was the last time something on the printed page caused such a stir, with everyone praising the joys of the written word?

Is Harry lowbrow? Of course. Is he cliche-ridden? Absolutely. Driven almost entirely by plot? Unashamedly. But there's something jubilant and mystical about these books, and therein lies the appeal. If, like me, you've been hungrily reading since you were old enough to walk, the Harry Potter mania will remind you of those nights you stayed up with a flashlight far past your bedtime, turning page after page until you couldn't keep your eyes open any longer or some well-meaning adult came in and told you to go to bed.

What were you reading? You probably don't remember -- some adolescent drivel, the details of which have now become blurred and irrelevant. In a way, it doesn't really matter what you were reading, because that was not what those late nights were about. Long summer afternoons with Anna Karenina may have yielded up more sophisticated pleasures, but those late nights I remember for teaching me about the more basic delights of the written word: not the appreciation of a wittily turned phrase or the human truths of a great novel, but simply turning page after page to find out what happens to the hero or heroine.

This may explain why, at 12:17 Friday night (or rather, Saturday morning) my roommate and I skipped home down a dark street, books clutched to our chests. I no longer have a set bedtime and my parents live halfway across the country, but I still read in bed with my lamp on until the wee hours, held spellbound by the pleasure of learning what happens next.

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