Justin's Reviews > Harry, a History: The True Story of a Boy Wizard, His Fans, and Life Inside the Harry Potter Phenomenon

Harry, a History by Melissa Anelli
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's review
Aug 12, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: nonfiction, pop-culture
Read in August, 2009

I'm a little torn concerning this book. I gave it four stars because I am an unapologetic Harry Potter nerd and enjoy reading anything related to the series, but parts of this book didn't really work for me.

The title of the book really isn't accurate. The author, Melissa Anelli, runs a popular HP fansite called the Leaky Cauldron, and is neck-deep in the fandom that surrounds the Harry Potter series. “The Fans” get a quiet, unassuming little nod in the book’s subtitle, but they really represent the lion’s share of what this book is really about. Also unapparent at first glance is the fact that this book is, for all intents and purposes, a memoir; nearly everything is described through the eyes of the author, including arguments with her mother and faux-modest observations of her own personal fans.

However, Anelli is fiercely dedicated to describing and clarifying the impact of the Harry Potter phenomenon on herself and, by extension, other fans she knows and interacts with. The books, the author, and the characters actually get very little page time, except within the context of their meaning to the fans and their reactions. While this makes for an enjoyable read in its own right, it can be disorienting for those expecting to read about Harry Potter and J. K. Rowling. Especially when Anelli starts discussing the more quirky aspects of the fan community in tones that suggest the reader should already be familiar with them.

In that respect, the book almost feels like a fandom documentary like Trekkies; in fact, the book makes a couple references to a similar documentary film dedicated to Potter fandom, We Are Wizards. Entire chapters cover segments of the fan community, such as the “Wizard Rock” movement and the various gatherings of fans on the Internet. The latter is an enduring theme throughout the book; Anelli takes great pains to highlight the importance of the Internet in Potter fandom, especially considering that the rise of both was chronologically parallel. I confess to wavering back and forth with these chapters. Some of them are extremely fun and interesting, such as the descriptions of touring with the band Harry and the Potters, and the detailed recountings of book release parties and all-night reading marathons. Others, however… well, I couldn’t decide whether to be irritated or amused by the earnest way in which I was expected to care about “big name” fanfiction writers, or the pathetic lunacy that pervaded the apparently heated debates over who was destined to be Harry’s girlfriend. Even parts of Anelli’s personal memoirs veer into over-the-top territory, to me. That being said, however, the honest, non-ironic look into the world of Potter fanaticism by one of its own offers interesting insights and anecdotes that can be surprisingly funny and heartwarming.

There are some chapters that fall more in line with what one would expect from a book like this, and they truly are fascinating. The impact of the Harry Potter books on the publishing world, including the splintering of the New York Times Best Sellers list and the chaotic effect on the battle between small bookstores and big box retailers, got a cursory but extraordinarily interesting examination. Anelli also interviews a high-profile religious opponent of Harry Potter, which makes for good reading, and the book naturally culminates in a description of Anelli’s interview with J. K. Rowling herself.

The biggest problem I had with the book is its chronological structure, which for a “history” is awfully inconsistent. The book’s structure follows a general timeline of the days leading up to the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which is evident in the beginning and ending chapters. However, the middle turns into a confusing, circular mess; each chapter is dedicated to a single topic, and in describing it, Anelli will jump from memories of Book 6 to recollections of Book 2 on a single page and with no warning. Even as someone well-versed in the Harry Potter books and the general history of each, I found myself not really being able to follow her narrative. I actually sort of gave up trying to place when each of her anecdotes actually took place, until things started making sense again as I got closer to the end.

Even with my little frustrations, I did enjoy this book, simply because I consider myself a Harry Potter fan (if, as it has become undeniably clear, not to the somewhat disturbing level as many others) and am interested in reading about the positive impact the series has had on other fans. Once I finished the book, however, I couldn’t really decide whether I was touched and envious that people could find so much meaning in the books and the relationships that sprung up around them, or disturbed by the fact that so many people seem to invest an unhealthy amount of their lives and personal identity in them. Maybe a little of both.
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