Rereading a book first read years before is a kind of time travel. As well as the familiar characters, we meet past versions of ourselves between the pages, waiting there to be reencountered. This effect is particularly acute with favourite stories from childhood, I find, or novels associated with especially formative emotional moments. For me, the self that hides in Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, for instance, is the one who liked to wear heavy floral perfumes and affect strange loopy handwriting. It’s probably best that she stays in there.
Inside my faded copy of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix lurks a sunburned teenager with goth tendencies, who left the dubious house party punch behind at a quarter to midnight to go and queue up at a book shop for a copy. I stayed up all night to read it, eventually falling asleep mid-morning in the garden with a chapter to go, only to wake with a peeling red nose that no amount of too-pale concealer could hide. In my subsequent rereadings of the series – usually gulped down in the bloated lazy days between Christmas and New Year – I have sprinted through this volume, trying to avoid reliving the headache and the hangover the book gave me the first time.
Late last year, upon remembering that I had a dormant audiobook subscription with half a dozen credits racked up, I decided to relisten to the series, rather than reread. For the first few weeks, all was well. Although my teenage admiration for Stephen Fry has long since worn off, I could still enjoy his avuncular narration for the Potter audiobooks. Without the physical book in my hand, I was free from the shame that occasionally accompanies an encounter with a past self I’d rather forget. My whole mood improved, even though it was winter and the days were at their shortest: any time I was walking, I was spending time in the wizarding world.
Except then I got stuck.
The problem came near the end of Order of the Phoenix, just as the plot darkens and our young heroes find themselves facing some serious peril once more. I would listen up to the point at which Harry falls asleep during his History of Magic exam and “sees” his godfather Sirius being tortured by Voldemort. I would struggle on through his waking attempts to find out what was really happening, and then right at the point when the members of the rescue mission climb up onto their Thestrals and head for the Ministry of Magic, I would hit pause and rewind back a couple of chapters.
I did this close to a dozen times over the next few days, looping around the same 45 minutes or so, unable to carry on past that crucial moment in the Forbidden Forest. This part of the Potter arc had never affected me in this way before – if anything, Order of the Phoenix, was my favourite book from the series. Yet reading as an adult rather than as a teenager, it was impossible to ignore how pivotal a moment this was in the plot. All of the irreversible wrongs in the series, like the deaths of Sirius, Fred Weasley, Severus Snape, Remus Lupin and many others, can be traced back to this moment. And it didn’t have to be this way.
Unlike the previous four novels, where the machinations of adults like Professor Quirrell and Barty Crouch Jr are outside of Harry’s control, the tragedy that unfolds in this book is avoidable. Harry thinks he is once more setting out on a heroic rescue mission, but like all the best villains, Voldemort has learned from his previously unsuccessful attempts to kill The Boy Who Lived. In line with the other ways that the series’ themes have matured (there is snogging, and general teenage angst now) The Dark Lord has levelled up, evil wise. He analyses what he knows about Harry – his saviour complex, his distrust of authority, his desperate desire to have a family – and uses it to manipulate him.
Like my colleague Stephen, I have long believed that Hermione Granger is the true hero of the Harry Potter books, and this moment in Order of the Phoenix confirms it. It was she, you see, who triggered my inability to keep on listening, knowing the avertable tragedy that was about to unfold. When Harry outlines his crazy plan to dash off to London because of a bad dream he had, she advises caution:
“Look, I’m sorry,” cried Hermione, “but neither of you is making sense, and we’ve got no proof for any of this. . .”
As ever, she’s right. Even though she forces Harry to try and contact Sirius, only to be deceived by Kreacher, it shouldn’t be enough to warrant a suicide mission – why take the word of a long-abused servant who hates his master? Why not talk to literally any of the Umbridge-resisting teachers still in the school, like Professor Flitwick or Professor Sprout?
Across the series, I have so many questions like this. As a result, I’ve read a lot of fanfiction written by authors who prefer to pretend that the Deathly Hallows epilogue never happened, or that the series ended halfway through book six. That’s the beauty of this fictional universe – you can branch off whenever and however you like, to solve the problems you see.
But ultimately, I have to keep on listening. Just because I find Harry’s teenage thoughtlessness hard to hear now, as an adult who knows the terrible consequences that lie ahead, doesn’t mean that J K Rowling didn’t write a story true to her characters. In stopping, I’m as much avoiding the teenage version of myself that I associate with this story as I am the plot itself. Confronting Harry’s bad decisions means reliving my own. And it isn’t just Order of the Phoenix. Once I get beyond this narrative sticking point, there are all my terrible opinions and unrequited passions hiding in Half-Blood Prince to contend with.
Allegra Goodman, in an essay about returning to Jane Austen called “Pemberly Previsited”, from a collection called Rereadings, captured this push-pull feeling of simultaneously wanting to revisit a book and wishing never to open it again:
“I think unfolding is what rereading is about. Like pleated fabric, the text reveals different parts of its pattern at different times. And yet every time the text unfolds, in the library, or in bed, or upon the grass, the reader adds new wrinkles. Memory and experience press themselves into each reading so that each encounter informs the next.”
Perhaps if I come back to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in twenty years’ time, I’ll feel differently, with my new wrinkles.