I’ve loved readathons for a few years now — ever since a friend and I discovered Dewey’s 24-Hour Readathon and went hard, staying awake for the full 24 hours and reading the entire time. And I guess this makes sense, because I have always loved a good event. A party, a movie marathon, anything, and the stricter the theme, the better.
Of course, it’s also fun to add a sense of community to something that is typically a solitary activity. When you participate in any sort of reading event, you’re turning your reading into a communal pastime, which makes it fun. And, helpfully for me, it also helps to keep you accountable.
So when I heard about Book Roast‘s Harry Potter N.E.W.T.s-themed readathon happening this August, I immediately wanted to join in on the fun. However, as exciting as the premise was, there was a little bit of a hitch, at least as far as I was concerned. I like to do things The Right Way, and in fact have more fun sometimes not despite rules, but because of them. I guess I crave structure. And, like the N.E.W.T. exams are preceded by the O.W.L.s in the Harry Potter books, the N.E.W.T. readathon was preceded by an O.W.L.s readathon, which took place in April.
As I said, I like to follow rules, especially when it comes to a good themed event, so the fact that I had already missed the O.W.L.s readathon when I learned about these events, at first I felt like it wasn’t worth participating in the N.E.W.T.s — especially since the two readathons build on each other. But then it occurred to me — in real life, if someone misses their exams, they’re allowed to take a make-up test. So that was what I decided to do: I would follow all of the rules of the O.W.L.s readathon in July, rather than April, in order to (hopefully) catch up before the N.E.W.T.s officially begin in August.
My friend and critique partner Mary decided to do the same, so I even got a little of that sense of community after all!
Before I talk about what I decided to read and why, I briefly want to give an explanation of how these readathons work. In the Harry Potter books, the students at Hogwarts take a series of exams at the end of their fifth year, called the O.W.L.s. How they do in each subject of these exams determines which classes they can continue on into for their last two years of school. Then, at the end of their seventh and final year, they take another set of exams, called the N.E.W.T.s. How they do on these tests determines which careers they can pursue after they leave Hogwarts.
Book Roast, a booktube channel on YouTube, created this pair of two readathons last year, and she seriously has spared nothing in their creation. She’s made materials that you can download and print, she makes videos throughout the whole process, and she monitors Twitter feeds as everyone talks about their experiences throughout the events. She even runs trivia games! I’m so impressed by the amount of effort and creativity she’s put into this whole thing, and her dedicated to it just makes me even more excited to participate.
One of the things she created for the event is a list of wizarding careers. Each of them give a description of the career, and a list of which O.W.L.s you need to complete in order to move onto the appropriate N.E.W.T.s for that career, and then a list of the N.E.W.T.s you need to complete in order to qualify.
Of course, it’s all fun and you can participate however you like, but since I enjoy rules in my games and events, I chose one of the careers that sounded like the most fun to me — the Librarian, which in the Harry Potter universe is much more exciting than it sounds — and went from there. For the O.W.L.s, each subject you need to pass corresponds with one prompt for the type of book you need to read in order to succeed. For the N.E.W.T.s, there are more levels than simply passing or failing, so it gets more complicated.
In order to pursue a career as a Librarian, I needed to earn an O.W.L. in Ancient Runes, Arithmancy, Defense Against the Dark Arts, History of Magic, and Transfiguration. The prompts that correspond with each of these subjects will be listed below when I go more into detail on what I actually read. If I succeed in completing a book for each subject, I can move onto the N.E.W.T.s that would allow me to progress toward becoming a Librarian in my post-Hogwarts career.
To do this, I would need to earn an O in Ancient Runes, an E in Defense Against the Dark Arts, and an E in History of magic. The letter grades come directly from Harry Potter, where an A is Acceptable, an E is Exceeds Expectations, and an O is Outstanding. So for the N.E.W.T.s, you can’t just read one book per subject, but instead, one book per letter grade (i.e. in each subject, there’s a prompt for a book that fills the A requirement, another for the E, and a third in order to earn an O). That means that while I only needed to read five books to complete my O.W.L.s successfully, I’ll need to read seven in order to succeed at my N.E.W.T.s.
So then, what did I actually read, and why?
Ancient Runes (Retelling): My original plan for this was to read Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi, which I imagine is an adult magical realism retelling of Hansel and Gretel in the same way that Boy, Snow, Bird was a retelling of Cinderella. I was looking forward to reading it, and it wasn’t even very long, but by the time I was getting to this, July was seriously wearing on, and I knew I wanted to finish up the O.W.L.s before the N.E.W.T.s started in August, so that I could fully partake in that leg of the magical readathon along with everyone else. So I didn’t get to Gingerbread, and instead read the first volume of the deluxe edition of Fables, which is a comic series, and so reading the collection was basically like reading a graphic novel. This may have been cheating a little bit, because I wouldn’t exactly call Fables a retelling, but I think it’s close enough that it works. It’s the story of hundreds of characters from what we know as classic fairy tales and folklore, only they’ve been persecuted in their homelands by “the Adversary” and so they’ve come to live in our world. This might come down to personal preferences, and the fact that I generally have a harder time getting into graphic novels than your standard issue novel-novel, but this was an example of the premise outdoing the execution for me. It’s a product of its time, I think, and leans a little too hard on the “Oh haha, isn’t this funny, we’re taking fairy tale characters and mushing them together with gritty realism?”. The characters read as flat, and its perpetual cynicism is not a good luck here in 2019. It’s a classic for a lot of people, but it’s a two out of five stars for me.
Arithmancy (Work written by more than one author): For this, I read the D&D Player’s Handbook. I’ll admit, I was already reading it before I decided to participate in this readathon, but it fit the prompt because it has a long list of contributors, and I didn’t want to stop reading it in order to read something for the readathon. I love reading nonfiction about fantasy things, so in general, I really loved reading this book cover-to-cover! The chapter about all of the spells was a little long and droning, but for the most part, I found the book really fun to read, and I thought it was good at what it was doing — it explained things as concisely as possible, so that even someone who has never played the game before (that someone is me) could understand, for the most part, what it meant. Four out of five stars.
Defense Against the Dark Arts (Title starts with the letter R, for the spell “Reducto”): I read The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen. I’ll admit, I picked this one mostly because it was hard to find a book that started with the letter R, and because I’ve been wanting to be reading more literary fiction lately. I thought this was a novel, but it turned out to actually be short stories. I was sort of simultaneously grateful that the stories were pretty short, and a little disappointed about it. They were pretty easy to read, but I never connected to most of the characters as much as I would have liked to. The writing was concise and clear, but not as focused on the language as I would have liked. A handful of the stories really stood out to me, and I can remember them well — especially the last one — but many of them started to blend. It was so interesting and valuable to read about so many immigrant and refugee experiences, though, and the two short essays by the author that were included at the end of the book offered nice insight and context. Three out of five stars.
History of Magic (Published at least 10 years ago): This is another one where I cheated a little tiny bit, because I read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (definitely published more than ten years ago), but specifically I read the illustrated edition. On top of that, this is another one that I was already in the middle of when I started this readathon, and saw in it the opportunity to both finally finish reading this, and sneak some Harry Potter reading into a Harry Potter-themed readathon. Obviously, this is a Harry Potter book, and it’s arguably the one with the best, and most fun, plot. I also absolutely love the illustrations in these editions. I think their such a beautiful way to breathe new life into the stories, and in particular, the artist’s depictions of magic and magical spaces are always so creative and whimsical and stunning. Five out of five stars.
Transfiguration (Sprayed edges or red cover): Another one where I ended up needing to change my (over-ambitious, since I was already late when I started) plans. I had intended to read The Other Americans by Laila Lalami for this challenge, but again, I had three days left in the month and still needed to read two books, so those two books were not going to be novels, unless I called out of work (I wish) or suddenly became a wild speed-reader. Instead, I looked around my living room, where some past roommates still have a lot of poetry books. I was lucky to find one with a (mostly) red cover, so I just went with that. I read Hackers by Aase Berg, a book of poetry translated to English from the original Swedish. I genuinely had high hopes for this, and maybe some of it was just lost in translation, but with the exception of a few lines here and there, the poetry largely read as fake deep to me, and it left me more frustrated than anything else. Two out of fives stars.
So that was that for my O.W.L.s make-up exams! I didn’t read as much, or as well, as I would have liked, but I’m pleased that I got through my O.W.L.s with passing marks, so that now, during the month of August, I can take my N.E.W.T.s properly!