As the last Binge Mode: Harry Potter episode drew to a close, Mallory Rubin, Jason Concepcion, and the rest of the Binge Mode team offered reflections on the personal impact of the Harry Potter series.
Mallory Rubin: I’m an anxious person, and so sometimes, I think about my wallet. What’s in it. What’s not in it that should be. What would happen if I lost it. I think about which of the contents are truly irreplaceable, and when I do, I think of a small piece of paper, folded in half and then folded again, that my stepmom, Debbie, gave to me more than a decade ago.
There’s a doodle of a cat on the bottom. There are Xs and Os, the binary code shorthand for love. And there’s a quote, scrawled in slanted writing that could have belonged to Dumbledore himself: “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
I cherish this piece of paper as though it were spun from pure gold. Debbie gave it to me in 2007, after we finished reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, because she knew how much that line, and the entire Harry Potter series, meant to me. Those words, which close “King’s Cross” as the mist swirls back around the truth, were a gift from Dumbledore to Harry and are among the greatest gifts that J.K. Rowling, or anyone, has ever given to me. They embody why we love stories. They remind us that ink and paper can be stronger than concrete or metal or any other building block. They convey in a single sentence the unsurpassed power of fantasy to unlock, for each and every one of us, a world of infinite possibility.
I didn’t get a Hogwarts letter when I was 11, but I remember so many of my Harry Potter firsts as vividly as if they’d occurred with a half-giant knocking down the door to usher in my magical awakening as the sea raged around us. They’re seared into me like firewhisky. I saw the first three movies before I read the books, and I can still recall each moment with Hermione-like precision. Stone, in Gainesville with my cousins, on a trip to visit family. Chamber, with my high school buddy Irene. And Azkaban, with my sister Alyson, after which I felt so transported and so desperate for someone to let me back through Platform 9 ¾ that I drove right to a bookstore and bought the four paperbacks that were out at the time.
I blazed through the first three books, succumbing fully to their majesty. And then, during a family vacation in the Outer Banks in the final weeks before I was set to head off to college for my freshman year, I opened Book 4. Goblet of Fire has always been particularly special to me because it was the first Harry Potter book I went into clean, with no movie scenes playing in my mind, with no idea of what wonders and heartache awaited me. I don’t consider it hyperbolic to say that reading it changed my life.
I was euphoric, transfixed. I laughed and cried. I grew attached to the characters in a way that transcended any prior reading experience. When we got back to Baltimore, I drove straight to a bookstore to buy Order of the Phoenix, which was out in paperback as well at that point. I devoured it, and then I began to read the series again from the start, a habit I continued near uninterrupted until Half-Blood Prince’s publication—and a habit that I would then repeat, books 1-6 instead of 1-5, in the wait between Prince and Hallows. Back in those early days I begged Debbie, who’d patiently jumped waves by my side as I shared my fevered theory of the day, to read the books, too. She did, and she loved them. I begged my mom to read them as well. She did, and she loved them—and a few months ago she joined the Binge Mode Facebook group, where, as you’ve surely seen, she took some well-earned credit for much of the blue humor that informs our adult content warning. Even my stepdad, not a Harry fan but an avid train collector, indulged my fascination with the Hogwarts Express.
My dad, meanwhile, delighted in seeing me fall so deeply into a grand tale. When I was a kid, he put a shelf in my room and he filled it with the fantasy stories that he hoped I’d read one day—stories that had meant something to him when he was young. That Harry wasn’t a book from the shelf was never any kind of failing: It was further proof that literature is a type of Room of Requirement, granting each of us what we may need. In time, I read many of the books that my dad gave me too, like Dune and Watership Down, and I loved them as well. Eventually, A Song of Ice and Fire became one of the most important things in my heart.
But Harry has always been unique for me. It changed the way I felt about reading, about stories. And in so doing, it changed the way I felt about life.
Harry brought me such comfort in those first few weeks of college, as I tried to learn about the campus, and my classes, and all these new people, and myself. Sometimes, alone in my dorm room, I would take out a sketch pad and try to draw the opening chapter illustrations from Stone. I liked tracing baby Harry most, from the opening chapter, “The Boy Who Lived.” He looks so peaceful, despite everything he’s suffered. He has no idea what wonders await.
I hung a Prisoner of Azkaban poster on my dorm room wall, and when the cover art for Half-Blood Prince came out, I hung that, too. It felt like a little lightning bolt scar of my own, a declaration that this story was a part of me. Many of the best friends I made loved Harry, too. Allison, Taylor, Katie, Suzanne. My Marauders. They became my bridesmaids a decade later, and the bachelorette party T-shirts they made me were Harry-themed: “A Siriusly good time!” And when my beloved Allison and I text to this day, we still sometimes call each other Moony and Prongs.
I went to the midnight release of Half-Blood Prince with Debbie back in Baltimore, but by the time Hallows came out, I was in New York for a summer internship. Amazingly, the best friend I made that summer, Lindsay, loved Harry Potter, too. We went to the Union Square Barnes & Noble together, and got our faces painted, and rode the subway home with the hardback in our hands, that unmatched mixture of anticipation and dread in our hearts. We wanted to know what awaited, but we didn’t want it to end.
But one of the greatest lessons Harry has taught me is that it doesn’t end, not really. Every passing day, I experience something about this story anew. This past year, I gave my nephew the illustrated edition of Stone for his 10th birthday. I find myself as desperate as ever to evangelize for this story, to bring it to those who might enjoy basking in its glow. I got to meet and befriend—along with Jason—Melissa Anelli, whose work at The Leaky Cauldron back in the day gave me some of my first tastes of the spirit of unrivaled community that Harry forged, and through it, a sense of real belonging. After a decade, I reconnected with one of my best friends from middle school and high school, Brandon. Somewhere along the way, I suggested that he read Harry Potter and he did, and as we shared the story together it became at once a Time-Turner that transported us back into our past friendship, and a reminder that time is just a construct, and a story like Harry strong enough to bridge across any divide, and into the great beyond.
In recent months, my husband Adam read Harry for the first time because he wanted to be able to listen to Binge Mode. It meant so much to me to share the wizarding world with him, just as it’s meant the world to me to share it with all of you. This story has taught me, taught us, so much. That our choices matter. That love can conquer hate. That we are who we decide to be, not what others seek to make us. That death, as William Penn said, is but crossing the world. That we can find our courage in our fear, and that we can find something else, too: acceptance; inclusion; friendship; the family that we choose.
Jason and I speak of that last idea so often because it transcends the theme of any one story. It is the bounty that fantasy gives us. When I talk to you, J, about that line from “King’s Cross,” or Harry’s walk into the forest, or Harry gazing into the Mirror, or any of it, I’m not just talking about a story. I’m sharing it with you. I’m inhabiting it with you. I’m choosing that family, and you’re choosing it too. The world can be so dark, and life can be really lonely. But Harry is a rare uniting force, a source of lasting magic as powerful as anything the Ministry studies behind that great closed door.
In Stone, Dumbledore says to Harry, “To have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin.” And a week ago, we went to a tattoo shop together and put this story, this love for Harry and all he’s taught us, into our skin, and I really believe that this tale and the community that’s sprung up around it will give us some protection forever.
Sometimes people ask me why or how I care about something make-believe this much. But it’s real to me. It’s more real, in some ways, than so many of the things around me that I can touch. Because Harry is something that I can feel. It’s alive to me, as the best stories are, a whisper on the wind calling me home. When Harry gazed upon his father’s teenage form in Order of the Phoenix, he thought: “It was as though he was looking at himself but with deliberate mistakes.” That’s what the best fantasy stories are for us, too: Not an escape from our lives, not truly, but that slightly skewed version of our own realities that allow us to feel more at peace when we face our own boggarts and our own dementors.
Dumbledore told Harry that the dead we have loved never truly leave us, and that’s how I feel about this story, too. It lives in me still. It lives in us. It courses through our veins and gives us strength—strength to try to know ourselves, strength to try to know each other, strength to try to know the world. It is our Patronus, a force of hope and love, never asking us to hide from our despair, but giving us the courage to stand up and face it. And, hopefully, to break through it.
And so I carry that small piece of paper with me still, all this time later, as a reminder. Of how Harry unites us and reaches across time. Of how Hogwarts exists inside each of us, a castle of our own making. Of how to the well-organized mind, anything we want can be the next great adventure.
Jason Concepcion: This has been hard to write. I have typed and deleted many, many, many thoughts. This kind of “What Does Harry Potter Mean To Me” in 800 words—it’s been difficult to string together.
But what I keep coming back to is that magic exists because storytelling must be magic. It is, I will argue, the essential magic which makes us human, makes life worth living—but not only that, gives life form and substance and allows to share that substance with others as well.
For instance, J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in stolen moments in rooms and cafes across England, Scotland, and Portugal beginning in the early 1990s. She was writing it when her mother died. J.K. never told her mother that she was writing the story, and she poured her grief and her longing and her fears into the tale and, in 1997, after numerous rejections, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was published.
Where were you when you first read the story? You might have been anywhere in the world. Because storytelling is a combination of time travel and telepathy.
Sometime before you began your journey, J.K. imagined Albus Dumbledore arriving at Privet Drive, and wrote:
A man appeared on the corner the cat had been watching, appeared so suddenly and silently you’d have thought he’d just popped out of the ground. The cat’s tail twitched and its eyes narrowed.
Nothing like this man had ever been seen on Privet Drive. He was tall, thin, and very old, judging by the silver of his hair and beard, which were both long enough to tuck into his belt. He was wearing long robes, a purple cloak that swept the ground, and high-heeled, buckled boots. His blue eyes were light, bright, and sparkling behind half-moon spectacles and his nose was very long and crooked, as though it had been broken at least twice.
What did you see in your mind’s eye when you read those words for the first time, or the 100th time, or heard me saying them right now? Did you see what J.K. saw? Is the purple of Albus’s cloak and the blue of his eyes the same shade and hue as that that she imagined? Does it matter that in my imagination, Albus’s nose might bend in one direction, and yours the other, and J.K.’s still another? No. There’s an eternal truth there that we’re sharing. We’re seeing the same thing even if the details are different. She created these images in her mind and then through the magic of storytelling sent them downstream in time to us, to share.
This cannot be anything but magic.
Zach Kram: I read the first four Harry Potter books in a whirlwind. It was the third grade, and a friend’s birthday party was to have us watch the newly released Chamber of Secrets movie, so my mom suggested I give the books a try to understand the upcoming film. I still remember where I was when I read the first chapter of the first book, half-crouched between my floor and my bed, too captivated by the magic of Rowling’s words to even find, or need, a more comfortable position. I snuck the last chapter of Stone after my bedtime, spiriting a light under my covers like Harry completing his homework over the summer; I finished the final thrilling pages of Goblet two weeks later and finally came up for air, frustrated only because I couldn’t get more now.
I found more in the form of the next three books, of course—and in those the elements that raised the series to even greater heights. The wonder of the Harry Potter books isn’t just the magic. It’s not just Rowling’s world building or her characters or even the impeccable planning she conducted at the start, though finding all the foreshadowed nuggets is one of the joys of revisiting the texts. More than all those strengths, the singular marvel of the series, to me, is the satisfaction of its end. So many young adult franchises I devoured as a kid, from the Pendragon adventures to the Series of Unfortunate Events to many others that now stand tall on my childhood bookshelves, faltered as they reached their close. That’s OK—I’m a sportswriter; I know most things we love peak well before the end.
But Harry opens at the close, opens into a new level of drama and sophistication and pure aesthetic prose, in the very spaces that were most vital to the story, and the lasting impression it leaves—the final impression, if we’re flexible with our definition of canon. There’s a reason I’ve read “The Prince’s Tale” more than any other piece of literature; there’s a reason I feel an irrepressible itch when I go too long without reading it, and the important pieces that came before it, and then before I know it I’m rereading the entire thing from start to finish, and gaining a new appreciation all the while.
And if opening at the close is both a key line in the series and a key meta factor in its success, then it follows that my own love for Rowling’s work would yield my own opportunities in its stead. While I eagerly awaited the final books to publish back a decade and change ago, I hardly knew how to handle my Harry thoughts in the meantime. I didn’t spend much time on the internet when I was young: I never made a Pottermore account, I never read fan theories, I never scrutinized every new JKR snippet or poster tease because I didn’t know those even existed.
But now, I wouldn’t be in a relationship if it weren’t for Harry Potter, about whom my partner and I chatted for hours as our initial friendship blossomed. I wouldn’t have moved to a new city without this connection forged through magic. Heck, I might not be employed by The Ringer dot com, a great website, if Mal didn’t learn I could recite all 199 chapter titles from memory and decide to hire me thereafter. But I’d be listening every episode, obsessively refreshing my podcast feed as I sought another slice of Potter lore. In recent years, I have literally had dreams in which I conducted wand duels with Cersei and Twyin Lannister. There’s hardly a better place I could find myself, or a more fun basis for community.
Isaac Lee: Before I knew Harry Potter as Harry Potter, I knew him as 해리 포터.
I read the first three books in Korean, my first language. I must have been 6 or 7 at the time, and I remember just being enthralled by that skinny little boy living in a cupboard under a staircase. Somehow, even though I was living in Seoul and he in wizarding England, I could relate with him.
And as my family moved to the States, I remember my brother and I took turns reading the latter four books (in English, this time). My brother actually spoiled the end of Half-Blood Prince for me—that Snape kills Dumbledore—before I even had a chance to read it. But funnily enough, Prince to this day remains my favorite book in the series.
All this to say, I quite literally grew up with Harry; he was like the English older brother I never had, except he could do magic and I couldn’t. I watched every movie in theaters. I even played the video games.
Once I got to college, I really didn’t expect the story or even the fantasy genre at large to stay with me. I mean, it just seemed like one of those childish obsessions that you put away once you grow older. Well, the opposite couldn’t have been more true.
So I have this habit of re-watching movies I’ve watched before. It’s kind of like comfort food for me. And living away from home, it became a more frequent habit. At the time my music career was really ramping up, and sometimes I just needed a break. And the Harry Potter films ended up being something I returned to possibly more than anything else.
Fast-forward to around a year ago. I was re-reading the books in preparation for this podcast, and I had gotten to the scene of the Mirror of Erised in Stone where we see James and Lily in the mirror—and for the first time, it really struck me how young they were when they died. They were just 21. And in a moment of self-examination, I looked at that and thought, “That’s not a perspective I would have had when I was in my teens.” Again, I looked up to Harry as an older brother figure.
And that’s an aspect I truly love about the story and J.K. Rowling being the person who authored it: She wrote about the human experience as a fully formed adult, through the avatar of these children. She explores themes too complex for a 6-year-old Korean boy and yet entertaining on face value to the point that that boy returns to the story, again and again in a different language, grasping new nuances, gaining changed perspectives, and one day, producing a podcast about it.