Why I Treasure the Harry Potter Audiobooks
I listened to the first Harry Potter audiobook when it was released in November 1999.
Despite the growing technological panic at the cusp of the twenty-first century, my parents only owned one CD player. It was too big to move from the sitting room, so the audiobook was bought for me as six cassette tapes to listen to in my bedroom. At nine years old, I had already amassed an impressive collection of audiobooks on cassette – I’ve always struggled to fall asleep and need to be tricked into unconsciousness by distraction from overthinking and worrying. I had Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox and The Giraffe, The Pelly and Me memorised, and had been forced to give up my Thomas the Tank Engine cassette to my sister, who was, in fairness, deserving; she’s younger than me and suffers from the same problem sleeping.
By this point, I’d read the first three published books in the Harry Potter series so many times that I’d accidentally torn pages and one book had even come away from its binding and had to be haphazardly sellotaped back together. They lived, permanently, in a crumpled, well-loved mass in my school backpack, in case I could ever take advantage of a few dull minutes to read them again. My love for the wizarding world unfortunately backfired, however, when it came to bed time. The audio cassettes had the opposite effect to the one intended: instead of sleeping, I was riveted.
I had no idea who Stephen Fry was, only that his voice was gently mocking as the narrator, describing the utterly normal lives of Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of Number Four, Privet Drive. His narration moved seamlessly to clipped astonishment for Professor McGonagall, to wise and cheeky as Dumbledore, and sniffling and sorrowful as Hagrid. By the end of the first chapter, as Harry Potter was being left in the doorway of his future, I was hooked on the audiobook, and would never look back.
A lasting impact
Today, June 26th, marks the twentieth anniversary of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone first being published. Written by a young, single mother who had tapped out the book on an old typewriter, neither J. K. Rowling, nor the publishers of the books, Bloomsbury, surely had any idea of the phenomenon they would be. In just twenty years they have become a cultural touchstone, so recognisable that they have crossed into the realm usually reserved for fairy tales. Like Cinderella, The Ugly Duckling, or The Frog Prince, the characters and settings are so ubiquitous in our collective consciousness that to speak of ‘being a Gryffindor’ has the same impact as ‘kissing a few frogs to find your Prince’. They have spawned eight films, two plays, three spin-off books written for charity – one of which, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, has inspired a film series itself – as well as a myriad other cultural impacts that are far harder to measure.
Gauging it on a personal level, the Harry Potter universe has had a life-altering effect. Its best and most enduring quality is the strength of the characters, and by far my favourite was Hermione Granger. When I first read the books, I could hold up a mirror to myself and see eleven-year-old Hermione. Bushy-haired, precocious, friendless, finding solace in the only place that would always welcome her: books. I could model myself on her, proud and never apologetic, and reassure myself that if she had two friends who loved her so fiercely, then I, surely, could expect the same. If Victor Krum, world-famous sports personality, could fall for her while she was holed up in the library, there was surely hope for me.
Equally, it is a moment between Hermione and Krum that functions as a perfect explanation of how the audiobooks can add so much to a story. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, a scene at the Yule Ball sees Harry eavesdropping as Hermione attempts to teach Victor Krum to pronounce her name correctly: ‘Her-my-oh-knee’, not ‘Her-me-own’. This was a revelatory moment for me, as ‘Her-me-own’ was how I had been pronouncing her name. I gratefully took this on board and pretended to have known all along.
This is only one of many benefits of listening to Harry Potter over reading it. The comic moments are all the more surprising and funny with the addition of tone brought by audio. Hogwarts is given a tranquil, reassuring feel through the timbre of Fry’s voice, which is vital in understanding how Harry considers it his first, and best, home. Equally, as the books develop, Stephen Fry lends a gravitas to the narration that provides the looming sense of doom that pervades the final three books. The emotional complexity in the final throes of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – as Harry walks through the castle towards Voldemort, revisiting his years at Hogwarts and feeling suffocated by the knowledge of his own imminent death – is provided partly by the writing, and partly the narration. Stephen Fry’s voice cracks as Harry speaks to his parents, making the difficulty of the scene more real.
But more than that, for me, the Harry Potter audiobooks have a special resonance. Not only have they been the soundtrack to my attempts to sleep for nearly twenty years, but they have fostered friendships, too. Lending the audiobooks to a friend with dyslexia opened up the experience of reading Harry Potter, something he had never felt able to do before. Discussing them as he made his way through the approximately 127 hours of book, was like reading them again for the first time myself.
Perhaps my ultimate favourite aspect of the Harry Potter audiobooks, though, is how easy they are to return to. Twenty years of familiarity with the stories has not yet bred any contempt, though they have their faults. Whether you’re in need of comfort, comedy, or emotional catharsis, as J. K. Rowling has said, Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home.
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Listening Books members can borrow the Harry Potter audiobooks to download or stream.
This article was written by Abigail Jaggers