This one’s personal. Very personal. This is an essay about my daughter and Harry Potter. There is not much sports in it, though there is some Bill James and some Quidditch and even a quick mention of relief pitching. But mostly it’s about a Dad and a daughter and imagination. You have been warned.
“For the Harry Potter novels, J. K. Rowling invented a sport, Quidditch, which is played by magical peoples. But in inventing the sport she made an obvious mistake. She placed a very high value—150 points—on catching the golden snitch. What is obvious to a sports fan is that this would, in effect, make the game unplayable; the too-high value for the snitch would crush all of the other objectives of the sport, making the entire game revolve around capturing the snitch. In practice, every player would be basically committed to spotting the snitch, rather than just the Seeker, so that the game would not in fact play out the way that Rowling assumes that it would. “
— Bill James
There are probably not many people in the world who can say this: I started reading the Harry Potter books because of Bill James. Well … Bill James and my wife. I have never been drawn to fantasy. It is a shortcoming of my imagination, I think. I am, in many ways, a literal and linear thinker, not unlike the woman comedian Garry Shandling once took on a date to the movie E.T. As the bicycle was flying across the moon, the woman turned to Shandling and said: “Yeah. Right.”
To which he thought: “I don’t think it’s a documentary.”
Or anyway, that’s how the joke goes.
I remember once in high school playing Dungeons and Dragons with some pseudo-friends. Once. I was nerdy enough and reclusive enough to play Dungeons and Dragons, but not near-creative enough, and when asked what “powers” I craved for my character (I’m still not sure I ever quite understood the rules) I could only think of wanting to fly, being bulletproof and having X-ray vision. Superman was at the farthest reaches of my imagination and needless to say I was not asked back into the game. I never did quite get it. I never read The Hobbit or anything like it; I still have seen only the first of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and I didn’t understand it at all. The Harry Potter books offered no appeal whatsoever.
My wife Margo is very much into such things, though, and she kept pushing me to read them, and I had my stock answer: “I will definitely read them when I run out of grown-up books.” This set piece of sarcasm did not dull her enthusiasm — she knows me too well, knows I wear down in the later rounds — and she kept hammering away at me to read the books, read the books, read the books.
And then Bill James came in for the kill. Bill, in the cliche of public opinion, seems a man without imagination or a sense of romance. He is, in public readings, the man who has turned baseball into a row of numbers. He has come to accept this as the price of being able to live a baseball life. But it has nothing at all with Bill James himself. When it comes to baseball, he loves the romance of the game more than anyone I know. He loves the way the grass smells, the way base runners go from first to third, the way pitchers kick at the dirt, the way the game’s history (and I mean the ENTIRE history going back into the earliest known moments of baseball in the 19th Century) plays on every current moment. He also doesn’t much like damn nonsense, and he will work numbers and create formulas to cut through. But that doesn’t cut into his love of baseball or of literature or Bob Dylan. People are never as simple as the cliche. Anyway, Bill suggested I read Harry Potter, and I always do what Bill tells me, so I started the first book, and two weeks later I had finished the first six and on the first day it was out I bought and read the seventh.
There are many things I love about the Harry Potter books. Quidditch is one of those things. It is — as I’m sure you know — the game J.K. Rowling invented that features players on broomsticks, three goals that look like the hoops children use to blow bubbles, a quaffle (a soccer-ball sized thing the players use to try and throw through the goals), two bludgers (rather large iron balls the players use to knock other players off their broomsticks) and the Golden Snitch, which Bill referenced above. The Snitch is a tiny enchanted ball with wings that is released at some point and is almost impossible to catch (which is why catching it is worth 150 points vs. the 10 points you get per goal). The game ends only when the Snitch is caught, and Rowling imagines great games in Quidditch history that went on for months and months because neither side could quite catch it. One player on each team tries to catch the snitch — he or she is called the seeker. Harry Potter, of course, is a seeker.
And, despite Bill’s absolutely correct statement about the value of catching the snitch being too high*, the game is wonderful, just another piece of the books’ wonder. It seems so silly to say this because it has been said so often, but J.K. Rowling is a marvel. She conjured up this complete world that is like ours and unlike ours, and as a writer I am awed by how her mind works. I have nothing to compare with Harry Potter, nothing all, because of course I have not read other fantasy books. I cannot and would not tell you that the books are somehow better than the Lord of the Rings Series or the Golden Compass series (which my wife loves) or the vampire books or the Rick Riordan books or anything else. I have no idea. And I will always have no idea — unless Bill James recommends another of those series, I guess.
*Though perhaps this view is based on Harry Potter being so good at catching the snitch. It is clear from reading the books that catching the snitch is supposed to be ridiculously, absurdly, comically hard, but it’s not THAT HARD for Harry. He seems to catch it with relative ease every time (except when the Dementors … well, let’s leave that for now). He is like the early 2000s Barry Bonds without performance enhancers — if someone without any sense of the rules had watched Bonds, and only Bonds, they might have concluded that a home run was too easy to make the game much fun.
In any case, I am reading the Harry Potter books again — this time aloud to my 9-year-old daughter Elizabeth. We are in the fourth book now. And reading them aloud has struck something in me about words and language and the power of imagination. Elizabeth is not like I was as a child. She is bewitched by fantasy, by werewolves (that scare her beyond reason) and vampires (she is infatuated with them, which does not make me especially happy) and witches and wizards and dark magic and castles and secret entrances and potions and all that. I have mentioned here before that Elizabeth does not have much use for sports* — she is the daughter who will sit on my lap during games and occasionally ask “Daddy, when will the commercials come back on?” — but she even loves Quidditch enough to ask basic strategic questions (“Why don’t they work harder to protect Harry from the bludgers?”).
*I say that my daughter does not know or care about sports but as any father or mother can tell you, kids are probably listening harder than you think. A few weeks ago, we had longtime friends stay with us, and their son (who I have known since he was born) was with them, and he is Elizabeth’s age and already a pretty promising baseball player. He throws right-handed, swings left, and his swing already looks a bit like Billy Williams’. In any case, Elizabeth was asking him what position he played. And with wonder I heard this conversation.
Boy: “I am a shortstop and a pitcher.”
Elizabeth: “What kind of pitcher?”
Boy: “What do you mean?”
Elizabeth: “Well, are you a starter or a closer?”
Boy: “What’s a closer?”
Elizabeth: “A closer is the pitcher who comes in the ninth to make sure you don’t lose.”
Boy: “Oh, I’m not that.”
I was going to finish that off with a joke, with Elizabeth saying something like “That’s good because I don’t particularly like the constricting role many managers have for their closers,” but that would have reduced the effect because the above really is pretty much word for word what Elizabeth said, and my jaw dropped. I had no idea. If someone had asked me what Elizabeth knew about baseball, I would have said: “That she can get nachos with cheese at the stand on the top of our section.” They really are paying attention more than you expect.
Elizabeth loves the Harry Potter books — and through her I love them even more. Every jolt, every laugh, every thrill, every annoyance I felt reading the book myself is magnified ten fold through Elizabeth. Every night (more or less) we read a chapter. And she falls for every literary trap. She comes out of those traps with her eyes wide open. She loves characters and despises them and is constantly surprised by them, which I think makes for the best sort of reading and also educational on an entirely different level from, say, history books or science books. She has learned through just the first three books that not all is what it seems, that bad is sometimes good, and good is sometimes bad, and that almost everything is neither good nor bad but instead a shade.
She asks questions, constant questions, and I always tell her to wait and see, but she isn’t any good at waiting, and in this way she is just like me as a father. I’m no good at waiting either. I have been known to read ahead, to fast forward, to read the CliffsNotes. But I do not answer her. I want her mind to work. I want her soul to sing. One day while we were reading the third book, she came home and said that a friend (who had seen the movie) gave away a key secret. I was furious. Elizabeth is not even allowed to watch the movie until she has finished each book. The thing is the tension, the effort to get to the answer, the way the imagination paints the picture. But, the truth is, you can’t protect them from learning secrets.
All of which leads to this: At the end of the month, I am probably going to go to Florida for bowl games, and I’ll bring along the family. And you probably know there is this new Harry Potter World at Universal Studios in Orlando — The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is the official name. I hear from friends that it is an amazing place. And, of course, Elizabeth wants to go. She more than just wants to go, she is utterly desperate to go. She wants to see Hogsmeade (the wizard town in the book) and she wants to buy candy at Honeydukes (the magical candy shop from the book) and she wants to ride a Hippogriff (I’m not going to keep explaining these things in parentheses — if you care, you already know). She is desperate to do all these things and many more, and I want her to do these things too, and I have begun to look into buying the tickets …
… but it’s a strange thing. As I look at purchasing tickets, I find myself worrying. Not about the prices, though amusement park tickets are definitely texpensives. I do not worry Harry Potter World will be a disappointment or not worth the money or any of that. It’s kind of the opposite. I don’t have the exact words, but I guess I worry that Harry Potter World will replace the Harry Potter world of her imagination. I worry that Harry and Dumbledore and He Who Shall Not Be Named and the Great Hall and the invisibility cloak and the sorting hat and all the wonderful and magical things that J.K. Rowling placed in Elizabeth’s mind will lose a bit of their magic and become something more earthy and plain and touristy and …
I don’t know. Maybe this is why we don’t want kids to find out about Santa Claus. We don’t want their worlds to have limitations. We don’t want their worlds to lose their magic. I know we will go to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter with a million other fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, and I know it will be wonderful. And I guess I’m afraid that we’ll get home and I will curl up next to Elizabeth to read another chapter of Harry Potter and she will say: “Oh Dad, I’ve already seen it. I’m grown up, you know.” I know those words are coming. I’m not ready for them. I know I won’t ever be ready for them.