That philosophy has stuck with me for over 25 years now and can you blame it? It's a good thing to have in the back of your brain: Don't concentrate too much on the if, concentrate on the how. However, this hinges on one constant, one naturally assumed rule of the narrative universe: that the good guys always win. You can have as many scrapes and close encounters and brushes with death you like, and there may be sacrifices made -- that's part of the how -- but the good guys always win in the end. Evil has to be vanquished. Even when you're dealing with a story involving moral grey areas and anti-heroes and whatnot, the one who usually comes out on top is the one for whom the reader or the audience is supposed to at least feel a little bit of support. If the story involves Phyrric victory (which I shall neither confirm nor deny with regards to certain wizardly books -- and indeed, below the cut there lie no spoilers) then that character becomes a martyr and honored accordingly.
I bring this up because there have been brou-ha-has (brous-ha-ha?) over the big ol' Harry Potter Book 7 Release festival in Harvard Square on Friday. I went to the Brattle's special movie/book event, where they screened Harry Potter & The Sorcerer's Stone at juuuuust the right time, so that when the film ended and the credits were nearly done, it was 12:01 AM and we could get our books. I was still in the auditorium when the stroke of midnight occurred; even so, we could hear the cheering outside. Several people inside were talking to their compatriots outside via cellphone, relaying the information to the kids inside; we saw cameraphone pics of the crowd, heard the countdown, and then went down to the lobby for our books. The line inside the Brattle was amazingly short. (I believe the Brattle people were probably among the first hundred to receive the book in Harvard Square. At least, I'd like to think that, so I can have a smug feeling of "Woo, I was one of the first people to get the book, and I also got to sit in a theater and enjoy a movie instead of standing in line.")
Walking outside in the square was exhilirating. The streets were crowded, lines at the Coop stretched all the way around the block and down Church Street, and every time a gaggle of people emerged from the Coop, books triumphantly held high overhead, the crowd cheered and took cameraphone pictures and otherwise made merry. As cliche as it may seem, there really was dancing in the streets. I trudged forth towards the T, fresh book snugly in backpack, and I got out while the getting was good, finding a seat on a reasonably empty Red Line train back to Davis. I ran into journeystar in the station, and we marveled at the celebrations above, calling it "New Year's Eve for literature." As a writerly type, I was absolutely amazed to see all this fuss, all this celebration, over a book! It rivaled sports victory celebrations in its scope, only there were no Slytherin overturning cars or Ravenclaws climbing streetlights. Not that I saw, at least. And this excitement was all for one single book! Emphasized in italics! People were actively exulting in their having purchased a copy, and the crowds were cheering them on! This is insane! This is nuts! This is America?!
My heart was indeed lifted by this display and I realized that while it probably was one of the larger gatherings around, it was but one of many similar, smaller celebrations all across the country. That we are a nation of tube-watching, Intar Web glomming, video game playing potatoes was suddenly irrelevant. We liked books again and that's what was so wonderful.
So I felt considerable chagrin when I read about the spoiler people, even though I knew they'd most likely show up. If you're the type who enjoys pissing in other people's cornflakes, you'd consider it a moral imperative to take advantage of the biggest bowl of cornflakes you'd probably ever encounter in your life and drink lots of water before heading out to it. I heard that Davis had someone parading around wearing a sign o' spoilers, and then I heard about the altercation at Harv. involving a guy and a megaphone which quickly became a smashed megaphone.
Arguing this has become futile. All the arguments and points that can be made have already flown back and forth over this incident: Was the smasher justified in smashing the guy's megaphone? Was the guy justified in hiding behind the First Amendment, as he did when he showed up to gloat in b0st0n? (I really sincerely doubt he asked the cops beforehand "Hey guys, mind if I spoil the book for these people, you know, Freedom of Speech and all?") And why are all you guys so upset about some stupid book for kids? You're gonna eventually know what happens once you read it.
That last bit about the "book for kids", by the way, holds absolutely no water. Replace "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" with anything you've ever waited for with great anticipation and as much patience as possible, anything from episodes of Doctor Who to your favorite sports team making the championship finals, and the problem still remains. You will be sorely disappointed if someone reveals the outcome to you before you get the chance to discover it for yourselves (and if someone reveals the outcome of a future sporting match to you, well, there'll be a bit more trouble than just disappointment.)
This then brings up a good point: How "ruined" can something be if you know you're going to enjoy it time and again? It only affects you the first time through; your thoughts preoccupied with what you know will inevitably happen. I've had it happen (Final Fantasy VII, of all things -- but at least it gave me the opportunity to, uh, switch out equipment and try hard not to help along someone's Limit Break progression.)
We know that at the end of the Potter saga, ol' Voldemort is going to be defeated. We know the good guys will win -- do you really think the book would end with "And thus were all the good wizards destroyed and Voldemort ruled over all and watch out Muggles, you're next, The End"? Of course not. Voldemort's gonna bite it, and we just need to know how. And, as J.K. Rowling kept forever mentioning, the how would involve death, lots of death, heaps of death, death by the truckload. People are gonna die, she said, gleefully rubbing her hands together. Bring your umbrella. Don't get too attached to any character, she said, anyone and everyone is fair game in my world. I'm pulling a Joss Whedon on this one. It's my last time out with these guys and as the saying goes, in writing one has to murder one's darlings, so let's go over to the literal extreme side of the room...
And lo there was much freaking out and gnashing of teeth and speculation as to who will make the proverbial Farm Purchase and when and how.
There's always a corollary to the rule The Good Guys Will Win. It's often unspoken and usually exists merely subconsciously, but that companion rule is that The Good Guys Will Emerge Unscathed. And even if it's not thought of as a constant, it always exists as a hope. But sometimes? Nuh uh. That ain't how the world works, kid. We are promised in The Deathly Hallows that we will witness the deaths of longtime characters, some of whom may be characters that we've grown to know and love over the course of ten years and seven books. That kind of emotional attachment is going to hurt like hell when it's cut. It may come quickly, it may come as a grand finale, or it may come while we were off on another page doing something else -- but it'll come. The darkness of Deathly Hallows comes in its exploration of death and its inevitability and its ... patience ... in far greater depth than Rowling dared try explain in Order of the Phoenix, even when speaking of Sirius's fall through the veil et al.
And that's what readers are afraid of when it comes to spoilers. There will be emotional shocks while reading. You are going to get hurt, especially if you are very fond of the character who just died. You are going to have to be hurt, and accept the hurt, and finish the narrative. But as the reader, you have the Right to Be Hurt on your own terms, and you have the right to accept and continue on your own time. You may be blindsided by it when it happens, and indeed Death often just pops right up when everybody least expects it and says COME ALONG, I HAVEN'T GOT ALL DAY, YOU KNOW but at least you are the one controlling the reading.
And someone hollering "RON GETS HIT BY THE KNIGHT BUS AND THEN EATEN BY A DRAGON ON PAGE 329" through a megaphone, or wearing it as a sandwich board or facepaint, no matter how "in accordance" it may be with one's right to free speech, deprives those within earshot of their right to experience it on their own terms. That's what's not fair.
(Oh, stop that. Of course Ron doesn't get hit by the Knight Bus and then eaten by a dragon on page 329. I wouldn't be so callous as to toss something out like that in the middle of an essay on spoilers. What kind of an inhuman monster do you think I am? No, indeed, Ron gets hit and et on pages 442-445.)
This isn't new, by the way. Wacky morning DJs back in the 80s were spoiling the ending of The Empire Strikes Back on the air. Sure, we all know who Luke's father turned out to be now, but back then? Nnnnnot so much. If you were listening to someone pull that stunt (and indeed, back before the Internet and its Wide Information Dispersal methods, this was rare) you had just lost your chance to feel the emotional sting yourself when you watched the film.
But still. Have you watched Empire recently? Have you seen the Cloud City confrontation recently? You know what's coming up. You know what's going to happen. But there's still an emotional sting of discovery, still a pang of empathy as you watch Luke discover his father's identity... for the first time. Over and over and over.
I'm not saying that if you've had the events of Book 7 or even Book 6 spoiled to you and you weren't happy, that everything is okay. It's not, and you were unfairly robbed. But you're not the only one experiencing the shock of a death. You share that with the characters, and a good author will let you share it with them as closely as possible. I won't say how well Rowling does with that. You'll have to determine that yourself should you wish.
As faithful readers, or even as a reader who's coming into the series for the first time (and if you're doing that without reading the other books first... why?) you deserve that literary empathy. You've come all this way with Harry, Ron, Hermione, and all their friends and family. You deserve the right to grieve with them in the Moment, all for the first time, as great losses occur. But, whenever you wish, you can go back and grieve with them again.
And that's something that a guy with a megaphone and an attitude can't take away from you.
Comments screened, but not cause I don't trust you. Just cause.