In this chapter, things descend and continue descending into absurdity, as Hogwarts tries to contact Harry to deliver his letter. The thing that struck me most while reading it is that Uncle Vernon, for all his professed knowledge of how “those people” think and act, is bafflingly ignorant of even the most basic concepts about magic. If I were a Muggle with no idea of the mechanics of magic or the culture of magical people, I feel like I would still probably be able to figure out that nothing I could do would actually stop a magical person (or school of people) who wanted to deliver a letter. Boarding up the mail slot, the cracks in the doors, fleeing the house for a hotel and then even farther for a shack in the ocean, all things Uncle Vernon tries. They’re magical people. They can use, you know, magic. Let’s see how many times I can use the word magic in one post.

I am very curious, though, about how exactly this works. What magical (sorry) system allows Dumbledore or McGonagall or whoever to know the exact location Harry is in, down to the room in the house/hotel? It seems like if it’s an ability that’s available to all witches and wizards, it could be incredibly dangerous and predatory. And if it isn’t, how are only the Hogwarts staff able to utilize it? I would love to read an encyclopedia of magical (sorry, sorry) mechanics, explaining how all these systems work. The way the house-elves deliver food, to name another one, or the specifics of Apparition. Failing that, I’d also take “Hogwarts: A History”, since no one else except Hermione seems to appreciate it.

Another thing I’m curious about: why do the Dursleys bother giving Harry any kind of birthday or Christmas presents? Why not just ignore him altogether on present-giving occasions? Do they do it just to rub in the fact that he has no one else to give him presents and they could be giving him ones equal to Dudley’s but aren’t? Especially once he’s at Hogwarts and they don’t even have to see him, sending him the fifty-pence piece just seems silly, but also giving him a hanger and a pair of old socks for his birthday.

Anyway. Maybe I’m too emotionally invested in this series, or, well. What I meant to say was, definitely I’m too emotionally invested in this series. But even so, Uncle Vernon’s madness is genuinely alarming to me. He’s always cartoonishly unpleasant, both in personality and in appearance, but there’s something else here. I can’t quite put my finger on it. Why does the very possibility that Harry might find out about his magic (okay, I give up, it’s a lost cause) upset him so deeply? It seems like more than just a fear and distaste for abnormality. Maybe he’s afraid that secretly, buried somewhere very, very deep, Petunia harbors some magic, and that by marrying and procreating with her, he’s enabling it to continue spreading, and that’s why his reactions to any hint of it are so extreme. Maybe he’s just an underdeveloped side character who doesn’t matter and I read too much fanfiction.

Harry is pretty sassy and gets an actual bedroom in this chapter, and soon he’ll be able to (mostly) leave the Dursleys behind, so all in all, things are on an upswing. And in the next chapter, Hagrid! Which means things are on an upswing for me, too. I’m ready to put these prologue-y chapters behind me and move on to the actual meat of the book.

This chapter is profoundly sad. It’s also almost comically exaggerated, which kind of distracts from the heaviness of what’s actually happening, and I’m not sure if that was a choice since it’s a children’s book or just the way JKR wrote back then, but either way it’s a strange reading experience.

For ten years, ten of his most formative years, Harry was forced to sleep in a cupboard under the stairs. Full of spiders and not much else. He was used as a punching bag by Dudley and all his gross friends. He was used as a verbal punching bag by Mr. Dursley. He was used as a servant by Mrs. Dursley. He was spoken about as if he wasn’t actually there, and never, as far as I remember, addressed with his actual name. He had nothing of his own, only hand-me-downs from Dudley. He was almost never allowed out of the house, except to go to school or shopping with Mrs. Dursley, he never got to go on trips, he never got to celebrate his birthday. He was locked in his cupboard for days on end for the slightest things.

Can you imagine? Can you imagine going from this, the only life you remember, to being famous, beloved, and magical? How terrifying and disorienting that must have been. How undeserving he must have felt.

Even in this chapter, before he knows anything about himself or his world, Harry is so excited to be able to go along to the zoo with the Dursleys. He hates them and they hate him, he must know that they aren’t going to actually let him enjoy himself, and he’s still grateful to go, to be given a cheap lemon popsicle and to be allowed to finish Dudley’s unwanted leftovers and to not have to stay with Mrs. Figg. If he’d only known who she really was. This seems like luxury to him, like as much as he can hope for.

The glimpses he’s given of the people who know who he is and appreciate him are also sad. Like, “When he had been younger, Harry had dreamed and dreamed of some unknown relation coming to take him away, but it had never happened; the Dursleys were his only family. Yet sometimes he thought (or maybe hoped) that strangers in the street seemed to know him.” Break my heart, Harry. They do know you. Just wait, so much good is coming your way. I mean, also a lot of bad, but … a place to belong and people who want you. And magic!

The seeds of some of the series’ core elements are planted in this chapter–Harry being able to communicate with snakes, the bits of memory he has of the night his parents died, even a little of his saving people complex. Or, well, saving things complex. Without even knowing he can do magic, he still manages to free the snake and send it on its way to its homeland. I don’t know what JKR’s writing process was like, how much of the series she had planned out before she started writing, but it’s really interesting to see how early these things were introduced, and how casually. They hardly seem important at this point except insofar as they further Harry’s abuse and sense of alienation, but they build and build throughout the series. I love it.

I enjoyed this chapter a lot more than the first one, and, more surprisingly, I’m finding Harry much more sympathetic than I ever did before. I don’t know if it’s a result of being older and more able to recognize and appreciate nuance, or if it’s just that I haven’t gotten to the later books when he’s much more angsty and unkind to his friends, but I want to give him a hug and assure him that Hagrid is coming. And I want to have a stern talk with Dumbledore and ask if there was truly no other way to protect Harry the way he needed to be protected, because honestly. This is just cruel and unnecessary and surely he knows what’s happening. I really believe that so much could have been avoided or at least minimized if Harry had had a more stable, less abusive upbringing and if he had been allowed to know things about his family. True things, not that they died in a car crash and were freaks.

Note: I’m using the American title because that’s the title of the version I grew up with and the version I’m rereading from. Shhh.

My first ever exposure to Harry Potter was in sixth grade, on an afternoon when my class had gone out to a pizza place for lunch and stuffed ourselves silly. Afterward, we lay on the classroom floor and our teacher read us the first chapter, and, I’m going to be honest with you here, I fell asleep. I have hazy memories of Hagrid arriving on the motorbike, Dumbledore taking Harry and placing him on the Dursleys’ doorstep, their moment of silence, but not much else. It’s a mystery why I then went on to devour and shape my life around the entire series, with an introduction like that. But I did.

An even bigger mystery is why, during those early years, I was so in love with Dumbledore. If there’s one thing I took away from rereading this first chapter, it’s that he’s really unbearable. His constant deflections, his refusal to just answer simple questions, his secretiveness. How much might have been different if he had just talked to people as though they were his equals, rather than revealing bits of information to various people and creating a mess of an incomplete puzzle no one else had all the pieces to. He’s just one man, not god.

That aside, I was also surprised by the simplicity of the writing. I’ve never thought JKR was a brilliant writer–a worldbuilder, yes, but not a writer–but I guess I had forgotten just how basic it was in the beginning. It did start out as a children’s series, so it makes sense, and this isn’t really a criticism. Just an observation. It was like rereading the Oz books after years and years and fondly laughing about the writing of those. What you think is brilliant as a child is not always so brilliant as an adult. And I’ve gotten used to fanfiction, which, if you find the right authors, is much more impressive in terms of writing quality.

It was fun to see the first appearance of the Deluminator, so far ahead of when it becomes important, and to see Professor McGonagall in cat form (the perfect animagus form for her, by the way), and to see Hagrid and the trust Dumbledore had for him. Hagrid is wonderful and deserves every good thing. And it was fun to have a chapter that wasn’t from Harry’s perspective but, instead, from the absurdly over-the-top terrible perspective of Mr. Dursley. Imagine how much less volatile Harry would have been if he hadn’t been raised by people who hated him so much and were so irredeemably awful and boring. Like. Who doesn’t approve of imagination?

This is a short post, but it was a short chapter. So, until next time, to Harry Potter — the boy who lived!

Harry Potter has been an enormous part of my life since I was ten years old. I’ve collected so many figurines, stickers, audiobooks, shirts, wands, necklaces, etc over the years. I’ve read so much fanfiction. So much. I’ve watched so many ABC Family marathons. I’ve spent so many days, nights, weeks, lifetimes immersing myself in the books, trying to will myself to Hogwarts through the sheer force of my love for it. Spoiler alert: it didn’t work, except in the ways it kind of did.

But I haven’t done a full reread of all the books in years. I used to fall asleep to Order of the Phoenix, and later Goblet of Fire, but the last time I read one of them all the way through was when I reread Deathly Hallows in preparation for the final film. Fanfiction and the films have completely taken over. And while they’re great in their own ways, I feel like it’s time to get back to the source material, to remember the days when it was all fresh and new and to find out if that core love is still there, even through a more critical adult lens.

So, I’m undertaking the project of reading all the way through, from beginning to end, and in an attempt to make something useful out of it, I’m going to be blogging each chapter as I read it. This is obviously going to be a long-running project–there are a lot of chapters. I’m thinking of trying to post two a week, but, you know … we’ll see. These aren’t going to be recaps so much as just my thoughts, feelings, and memories, with healthy doses of Dumbledore criticism and Hermione praise, I’m sure.

JKR says that Hogwarts will always be there to welcome me home. I’m coming home. You should come with me.