Harry Potter's Highest Priority

Nov 20, 2020

Harry Potter has become as much a part of our autumns as crunchy leaves, pumpkin carving, and Halloween costumes. When my boys are grown and think back on their childhoods, I know they will fondly remember the cozy evenings we spent immersed in the wizarding world of Hogwarts. And that makes me happy.

It's quite possible that Aaron and Max will remember this year's installment, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, better than any of the others. It was maybe the most enjoyable readaloud experience we've ever had, and that's saying something. They begged me to read it every night. They folded laundry if it meant I would read a little more. We spent Sunday afternoons reading just one more chapter. And they even woke me up on a Saturday morning to see if I would read before they had to start on chores. 

This was quite the contrast to last year. The fifth Harry Potter took us nearly five months to read, and it was something of a slog--a pleasant slog, but still a slog.

Not so with this sixth book. We blazed through it. The chapters melted away, one by one. There wasn't a moment of pause or drag. The story just flowed in that magical way that sometimes happens.

When we read the final line and closed the book, we felt immense satisfaction but also a keen sense of loss. We experienced withdrawals for several weeks after finishing. Sometimes Aaron would come into my room and open his mouth to start to ask for Harry Potter before remembering that there wasn't anymore left to read.

It was the first time I have been sorely tempted to just jump into the next book. I'm sure I wouldn't have met any resistance from Aaron or Max if I'd suggested it. But these books are as much about the ambiance and feeling of fall as they are about the stories themselves. We've created this experience, and it would be such a shame to break it for the final book. Plus, I know that the anticipation and excitement will only grow between now and next September.

I felt bad for the readaloud that followed this one. It probably didn't matter which book we chose, it wasn't going to be able to compete. The boys were completely unenthusiastic about it. It took us a good eight chapters before we were into it, and even then, it felt like we read aloud out of habit more than for the sheer pleasure of it. 

The one disadvantage of reading a book well after your peers is that many things have accidentally been spoiled for you (and in case you haven't read this book, this is your warning that I will be sharing spoilers here), including the biggest plot twist--that of Professor Dumbledore dying at the hands of Professor Snape. That moment has become a part of culture. Spoilers are unavoidable. 

But somehow, knowing that it was going to happen did not make it any less dramatic or heart-stopping when Snape raised his wand on top of the tower and uttered the fateful words. My eyes had skimmed ahead, and I had seen it before I actually read it aloud. It took my breath away, and I told the boys, "I can't read the next part. I just can't." I decided I was actually grateful many different people had spilled the ending many years ago. I think it might have been too traumatic otherwise.

Even though we knew the way the book would end, there were still many points of the plot that we knew nothing about, including who the Half-Blood Prince was. We discussed possibilities and mounting evidence, but we were still surprised when it was finally revealed.

Besides the pleasure I derived from reading this book, I also had a rather profound, maybe even spiritual, moment while reading.

During one of Harry's lessons with Professor Dumbledore, they visit a memory of Professor Slughorn's. It is incomplete and altered, but Dumbledore is convinced that the true memory will "undoubtedly be [the] most crucial piece of information of all" in understanding Voldemort. Dumbledore gives Harry the charge to find out the real memory from Slughorn. He emphasizes the absolute importance of this in their quest. Nothing else is of higher priority.

Harry doesn't doubt Dumbledore, but he doesn't have any great ideas for how to get Slughorn to trust him. And meanwhile, Draco Malfoy is definitely up to something. Harry can't figure out what it is, but it completely consumes him. He obsessively studies the Marauder's Map to track Malfoy's movements. He thinks about it all the time. He gathers evidence and comes up with all sorts of possibilities.

At their next lesson, Dumbledore asks, "Have you managed the task I set you at the end of our previous lesson?" Harry says that he asked Professor Slughorn about it, but Slughorn refused to give it to him. 

And then, Dumbledore says something that easily cuts down every single excuse: "And you feel that you have exerted your very best efforts in this matter, do you? That you have exercised all of your considerable ingenuity? That you have left no depth of cunning unplumbed in your quest to retrieve the memory?" 

Harry actually had been devoting that kind of effort, ingenuity, and cunning into a task, but it was not the one that Dumbledore had given him. Harry knew what the most important thing was. He even believed it was the most important thing. But something else won his attention because it was the thing that made his own prideful emotions flare up, and he couldn't let go of it.

With a start, I realized how many times I am just like Harry. I know what the important things are. I don't need to be convinced. But I don't give priority to them. I subconsciously know that those things will still be around whether I pay attention to them now or later. So I put them off in favor of more tantalizing endeavors. 

For Harry, it probably also had something to do with the fact that he felt unequal to the task. If he didn't try, then he hadn't failed yet, and that would give him more time. It is the same for me. I am crippled by the worry that I won't fulfill my highest objective, and so I would rather not think about it right now.

It has been almost a month since we finished this book, and I am still thinking about this part. I can't get Dumbledore's question out of my head, "May I hope, then, that you will give this matter higher priority from now on?" He could just as easily be asking that question of me. And I am determined to accept his challenge.

I know that this book is many people's favorite in the series, and it might be mine as well. Certainly a book that can be entertaining, compelling, and thought-provoking should be given the highest praise. I love that J.K. Rowling delivered some of her finest work towards the end of the series, and I couldn't have asked for a better reading experience than sharing it with my boys.


  1. I just re-read this one myself a week or two ago and it’s probably my favorite book of the series. It’s just SO GOOD.

    Reading your post was a delight!

  2. What a fun post! I hadn't ever quite viewed that part of the book in this way (and I have read/listened to the HP series an indecent number of times!), so I loved your interpretation of it.


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