Maggie Harcourt: Pages in Common
Photo: Maggie Harcourt (c) Lou Abercrombie
A couple of nights ago, I went out for dinner and arranged to meet some friends in the centre of Bath. When I walked through the door of the restaurant where we'd agreed to meet, they looked me up and down and said: "Well, you've come as the most Slytherin version of yourself, haven't you?" All because I had accidentally dressed in black and green.
Not dissimilarly, I have another friend who - whenever he meets someone for the first time - insists on working out which Faction they would belong to: Dauntless or Amity; Abnegation or Erudite. He's 37, and a die-hard Divergent fan. He also claims to be deeply suspicious of Amities. (Apparently nobody's that nice.)
It's not just us, either: in an age where it's as common to see a Hunger Games reference used in relation to online political coverage as it is to read detailed news commentary, specific book fandoms have spread far beyond their original pages.
Thanks to social media and the vast array of technology we have at our disposal, it's now possible - and increasingly common - to have friends of different backgrounds, ages and nationalities scattered across the world, and fandoms are often both the initial spark and the fuel for these friendships. You may not have much in common with one another on the surface… until you realise that you've both spent time imagining yourselves being Sorted at Hogwarts or as one of the Shadowhunters. However different you are, there is immediately something you can talk (or argue) about. There's someone who understands the things you love; who can understand who you are because of them.
Whether it's adventure and excitement or something more fantastical that we crave, books can take us out of ourselves and our everyday lives with as little as the turn of a page. But what makes book fandom special is the unique space it occupies between secret and shared: we experience the worlds of Harry Potter or The Mortal Instruments both privately through reading, and publicly when we share our thoughts, our interpretations and feelings, with other readers, fans and friends. It is this overlap that makes them so appealing; so magical. It's personal and it's tribal, all at once. It's uniquely yours… and yet owned by everyone.
Book fandoms are open to anybody. It doesn't matter if you're seventeen or seventy - or, in the case of Harry Potter, seven. The fact books rely so heavily on our own imaginations, our own personal readings, makes them feel somehow even more welcoming than the same stories on film - perhaps because it's so easy to immerse ourselves in the world when we can hold it in our hands between the covers of a book.
Take one of my own favourites: Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. It's the first story I really felt could have been written for me; one that I wanted so badly to be true. The world of lost magic there is within touching distance, along with a folklore that is so detailed and well-drawn it's almost impossible to believe it never existed. Never mind the trickster-fairies who lead unwary mortals into distant lands: given the chance, how many of us would turn down the chance to step across the mirrors into her world? The closest we can ever come is to talk about it with someone who loves the story as much as we do. It's not quite the same as actually doing it, but still… it makes that world a little larger, a little more accessible to us.
It's the reason I put so many references to Strange and Norrell into my own book, Unconventional: my main character, Lexi, is a self-confessed fangirl - and what better book to be her favourite, the one she thinks about, talks about and jokes about, than one I love too? Book fans tend to be book-pushers, and there's nothing better than to be told someone has bought a copy of a book you've talked about or said you loved, because joy can be - should be - infectious.
Reading is so often seen as solitary: we retreat into a book, we lose ourselves. People read on trains, on buses, in airports and in restaurants and parks. We read to shut out the world… but we can also read to open doors. Books aren't just objects, and they aren't just stories. Every single one of them is the starting point of a community; a conversation. Books can show us that we have friends we never knew we had, both inside the pages and - if we choose to look - outside them too.
We're all fans of books, fans of stories… and that means something.