Running a public reading group has its challenges – particularly when its hosted by a University. A University is an intimidating venue for many people. That’s partly the reason the reading group was set up; so local people could come in to the library to share their love of literature, their ideas and their own opinions in a setting that was both accepting but still encouraged deeper analysis. After three themed seasons chosen by us organisers (horror, crime and local writers) we took things a step further and asked attendees to suggest themes and books they’d like to read and discuss. The outcome was fantastic with two clear front-runners at very opposite ends of the literary scale – ‘Banned Books’ and ‘Children’s Literature’. That’s how, on February 3rd, the University of Hull hosted a Harry Potter reading group.
To run few through a few practicalities, the sessions are held in the University library on Saturday afternoons. They are held once a month and last about two hours, with a comfort break in the middle. The design model for the group is modeled on undergraduate seminars: an expert ‘host’ starts the session off with a brief talk or presentation, before asking key questions to the group, keeping conversation on topic (not always an easy task) and ensuring the session touches upon a text’s main themes. The host for the Harry Potter session was Becky Morris (@BeckyMorris on twitter), a PhD candidate working on her thesis on a range of children’s literature, but whose main qualification was being a life-long Potter fan. Becky did an excellent job in not only presenting everyone with an informative introduction to The Philosopher’s Stone (the only set reading for the session) but a ‘potted’ history of the franchise and an exploration of why it has gone from strength to strength.
What made the Harry Potter reading group truly interesting was the diverse range of ages and familiarisation of the series within the room. The event had been advertised widely on social media and through e-mail. Apart from our own facebook event, booking site and e-mail to the University’s Harry Potter society the details had been retweeted from different groups around the city, including the Hull Central Library team who were in the middle of their own month-long Harry Potter extravaganza.
For many of the regular attendees, myself included, the Harry Potter reading group was their first experience reading the series – and we were keen to discuss it. For others it had been a long time since they had delved into Hogwarts, and shared stories of reading it to siblings, children and even grandchildren. We were also lucky to have a few new faces who seemed to be Harry Potter devotees who were quick to answer questions and explain the finer points of Potter lore from the books we’d not yet reached. While not everyone was a huge fan everyone was able to argue their case well – pointing out some questionably written sections or just making allowances for personal preferences. Even those who were not gripped by it got a lot out of it, with some very insightful and emotive responses to certain scenes in the book – particularly Harry’s treatment by his aunt and uncle. From a personal perspective, the real achievement of the event was getting such a diverse group to not only read but really engage with a book they may never have picked up otherwise, but as people drifted out at the end talking about being ‘sorted’ into a House on the Pottermore website and planning to read the rest of the series it seems as though we created a few new Harry Potter fans.