Commonplace
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www.common-place.org · vol. 2 · no. 1 · October 2001
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Harry Potter
J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic, 1999.

Bryan Waterman, an assistant professor of English at New York University, is completing a book about Elihu Hubbard Smith, the Friendly Club, and late-eighteenth-century intellectual life in New York. He lives a few blocks from where Smith's apartment once stood.

 

 

"What would it be like to step inside the memory of the diarist? To experience a diary as if it were a video replay? What would I ask an enchanted diary if it one day spontaneously responded to my marginal annotations?"

Harry Potter, My Daughter, Elihu Smith, and Me
Bryan Waterman

Part I | II | III

I

Near the climax of his second book of adventures, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (New York, 1999), the world's favorite British prepubescent nerd-turned-wizard nearly kills himself by reading a diary. What happens, without giving away too much, is this: At the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, in an alternate dimension somewhere near London, Harry finds a diary someone has tried to flush down a toilet. "The little book lay on the floor, nondescript and soggy." Curiously, it's blank, but Harry keeps "picking it up and turning the pages as though it were a story he wanted to finish." Eventually he discovers that when he writes in the diary, it writes back to him. "My name is Harry Potter," he writes, dipping his quill in scarlet ink. "Oozing back out of the page, in his very own ink, came words Harry had never written. 'Hello, Harry Potter. My name is Tom Riddle. How did you come by my diary?'"

After they've exchanged pleasantries, the diary, once owned by Tom Riddle, a former Hogwarts student, promises to reveal secrets about certain mysterious events at the school. It makes this promise by offering to let Harry step inside Riddle's memory to witness scenes from the school's past, half a century earlier. "Let me show you," the diary pleads. And then, "Harry saw that the little square for June thirteenth seemed to have turned into a miniscule television screen. His hands trembling slightly, he raised the book to press his eye against the little window, and before he knew what was happening, he was tilting forward; the window was widening, he felt his body leave his bed, and he was pitched headfirst through the opening in the page, into a whirl of color and shadow."

Once inside, Harry is sort of like Jimmy Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life: he enters rooms, overhears conversations, feels as if he's there, but no one can see him. He gathers a certain amount of information about the past, thinks he has solved the mystery plaguing the school, then whirls back out of the diary to land on his dormitory bed.

A few chapters later, Harry encounters Tom Riddle again, only this time the diarist has escaped the volume in which he had been prisoner. He's a little blurry around the edges. "Are you a ghost?" Harry asks. "A memory," Riddle responds. "Preserved in a diary for fifty years." It doesn't take long for Harry to realize that Tom Riddle wants to kill him. Riddle has learned that Harry, in Riddle's distant future, would foil the diarist's most nefarious schemes. Harry also realizes that the "memories" he witnessed, when he had been sucked into the diary, were a sham. Riddle hadn't let Harry see the whole truth; his distortions had led Harry to false conclusions in his detective work. After protracted verbal sparring followed by hand-to-hand combat, Harry defeats Riddle by stabbing the diary. Scarlet ink spurts out of it "in torrents, streaming over Harry's hands, flooding the floor" like blood. Riddle's "memory" vanishes.

For eighteen months or so, as my six-year-old daughter and I read nightly from Harry's four volumes of adventures, we felt much the way he does when he plunges, unexpectedly, into Tom Riddle's diary. Or even when he first boards the Hogwarts Express, from an invisible train platform at King's Cross station, and heads to the wizarding academy. Harry's awkwardness, his orphaned status, his cruel, nonmagical relatives, make him a sympathetic figure, particularly to preteens who feel the world's injustice on a regular basis. But another aspect of the books' appeal, I think, stems from the fundamental way the series is about the act of reading itself. In other words, my daughter and I, as we get lost in these stories, are supposed to feel somewhat like Harry stumbling into magical dimensions and enchanted diaries. His imaginative adventures mimic readers' adventures of imagination. Harry doesn't nod off like Alice or Dorothy. It's almost as if Harry has plunged headlong into a good book, and we've simply gone along for the ride.

Perhaps it's due to the fact that I spend a good portion of my own time reading and writing about (and sometimes feeling lost in) diaries, but Harry's encounter with Tom Riddle's magical memoir is one of my favorite episodes in the series. The interactive diary has provided me with images that resurface every time I open a diary I'm studying or writing about. What would it be like to step inside the memory of the diarist? To experience a diary as if it were a video replay? What would I ask an enchanted diary if it one day spontaneously responded to my marginal annotations? Playing around with these questions has required me to think hard about my own encounters with diaries, and about the relationship more broadly between a reader in the present and a text that "preserves" a person from the past.

What Tom Riddle's diary captures most of all, I think, is the fantasy of encountering a perfectly preserved personality, fully capable of conversing across time and space. Both in and out of the text, Harry encounters Riddle as a three-dimensional, if blurry, being, conscious of Harry's presence as a reader. Inside the diary, Harry watches the past the way he would watch TV. But the fantasy of gaining this sort of access to a diarist's experience is also related to an illicit tingle readers of diaries sometimes get. Reading a diary--even if its author is several hundred years dead--sometimes feels voyeuristic. I confess to having secretly read friends' and roommates' diaries when I was younger, hoping to find out what they really thought about me. It's the same search for candor that gives diary readers the sense that we're experiencing something that's "truer" than other forms of literary writing or historical record. Tom Riddle uses this notion to draw Harry into his diary: "I always knew there would be those who would not want this diary read." The knowledge he can offer Harry is dangerous, exclusive, and, he would have Harry believe, absolutely true.

Even as it suggests a reader's wish to converse with someone from another time, Riddle's diary serves as a perfect figure of what literary critics sometimes call "reader response" or "reception" criticism. These ways of reading involve a constant awareness that we can't really encounter our subjects as three-dimensional beings, and that even if we could, it might not help us get at the "truth" any better. At the risk of crude oversimplification, reader response theorists hold that a text's "meaning" is provided by a reader, not a writer. When we read, we create meaning based on our previous experiences and subjective views. Reception theorists, operating from a similar set of assumptions, like to think about books historically, to ask, for example, how the same work might have been differently read in different times and places. What Hamlet meant in nineteenth-century New York may not be what it meant to Elizabethan Londoners, because different viewers and readers assign the play different meanings in different contexts.

Harry Potter's experience with Tom Riddle's diary seems to bear out these notions of how meaning is made: the book is blank until Harry himself starts writing in it. And Tom Riddle only understands current events through his readers, through what they bring to their encounters with the text. Riddle gains clarity, takes shape, and eventually escapes the diary's confines by feeding off his readers' emotions.

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