Of all the books that I have read, few have affected me as deeply as the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. I received the first book as a present for my 18th birthday; my aunt has a knack for knowing ahead of the curve which books will prove to be especially popular, and her instincts certainly were correct with Harry. In the eight years that followed, I eagerly anticipated each new installment, and only the final season of LOST can compare with the degree of excitement I felt as the publication of the final volume neared. A shared text for a generation, Harry Potter is a subject I can discuss with many of my friends, and some of us have grown much closer for it. The series has also inspired me to write somewhere in the area of 50 poems and filksongs. Harry's been good to me. Here's a brief guide to the books.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's / Sorcerer's Stone - The first book in the series got a new name when it came to America because the publisher thought the word "philosopher" would be a turn-off to American kids. Maddening, especially when you consider the fact that the Philosopher's Stone is a long-established mythical object, the ultimate goal of alchemy. To call it a "sorcerer's stone" reduces its significance. Similarly, the insistence upon changing so many Britishisms into American phrases is galling. The British setting is one of the most appealing things about the series, and it's just jarring to have Ron and Harry talking about their "moms".

Despite those quibbles, this book gets the series off to a strong start, with the dramatic appearance of gargantuan, open-hearted Hogwarts groundskeeper Hagrid, followed by Harry's dazzling introduction to the wizarding world, one of the most thrilling segments in the series. The book is a bit on the short side, and while there are dangerous elements, the tone is fairly light-hearted overall and certainly appropriate for children ten and up. Most of the main characters in the series are established, though they will become much more fleshed out in later volumes. Most notably, we meet gentle, ancient mentor Albus Dumbledore and Harry's two closest friends, bumbling Ron Weasley and brainy Hermione Granger, probably Harry's three most important allies - though affectionate Hagrid will always be my favorite.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - We get to know the Weasley family better in this book, since Harry stays with them for part of the summer and Ron's younger sister, Ginny, enrolls in Hogwarts. From this time on, Harry is an unofficial member of the Weasley family, if he wasn't already, and Ron's mother Molly fills a gaping void left by his own mother, whose sacrificial death when Harry was an infant is crucial to the events of the series.

This book also introduces Dobby, an endearing but annoying House Elf whose attempts to help Harry often go horribly awry. While he serves largely as comic relief, his role will become more important later in the series. Not so Gilderoy Lockhart, the preening peacock of a Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher who has published stacks of books about his daring feats but doesn't seem to have any idea what he's doing. One of the funniest characters in the series, he only plays a significant role in this book, which also focuses on prejudices within the wizarding world and delves into Hagrid's history.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - One of the most startling twists in the series occurs in this book that explores the time Harry's parents spent at Hogwarts. Much of Harry's information about their past comes from Professor Remus Lupin, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. Each book includes a different teacher for this cursed subject, and level-headed, compassionate Lupin is generally regarded as the best of the bunch, though a dark secret prevents him from staying long. We also learn a bit more about Severus Snape, Harry's least favorite teacher, who attended school at the same time as his parents and Lupin.

While Rowling finds several ways of immersing readers in the past throughout her series, this is the only book to include time travel, and the carefully plotted climax demonstrates what a dangerous thing that is to meddle with. Seemingly insignificant details take on massive importance in this book, while the names of characters provide subtle hints about their natures. While the revelations about the earlier generation are most critical to the series overall, I especially love the subplot about Hermione's tireless efforts to rescue Hagrid's beloved hippogriff, who stands accused of accosting Harry's schoolyard rival, Draco Malfoy. Although this is the only volume not to directly involve Voldemort, Harry's ultimate nemesis, it is the first to incorporate Dementors, terrifying wraiths that suck the joy out of everyone in the vicinity. A very intense novel.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire - Drastically longer than any of the books preceding it, this book marks a dramatic shift that makes the series more adult-oriented, with a section near the conclusion that is truly horrific. The framing device of the Tri-Wizard Tournament is ultimately rather silly, a poorly designed contest that throws three schools into upheaval for the sake of a dangerous competition involving only three competitors - or in this case, four, making the whole idea doubly ridiculous. But Harry faces all of the challenges before him bravely, using his ingenuity and some very valuable advice.

Romance becomes an issue for the first time as a Yule Ball throws everyone into a tizzy, and we meet a host of new characters, most notably the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Mad-Eye Moody, a gruff Scotsman with extensive experience tracking down dark wizards and witches. Several subplots, most of which were excised from the movie, add to the book's length, among them Hermione's quest to liberate the school's House Elves and Ron's insecurity about his family's poverty. The long-dreaded return of Voldemort comes to fruition with deadly consequences. A major turning point in the series.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix - This longest and darkest book in the series finds Harry riddled with angst and tormented by visions that connect him to Voldemort. Both Dumbledore and Hagrid are largely absent in this book, and the sadistic new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Dolores Umbridge, casts an additional pall over the school year. This is the final year at Hogwarts for Ron's twin brothers Fred and George, and their shenanigans help lighten up an oppressive school year, though an incident midway through the book leaves even these upbeat boys at a momentary loss for a laugh.

While this is my least favorite of the books, it lays some important groundwork for the final two installments, and Harry's surly behavior becomes more bearable once it becomes apparent that he will snap out of it in the sixth. One of the most important scenes involving Snape occurs in this book, and timid Neville Longbottom begins to take on more heroic qualities as he strives to defend the school against the monstrous witch who tortured his parents into insanity. Additionally, it introduces the luminous Luna Lovegood, an oddball in Ginny's class who has an uncanny knack for seeing straight to the heart of a situation. This is the hardest book in the series to get through, but it's still extremely rewarding.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - After the depressing tone of the previous book, this one is a relief. Harry and his friends have one last year of relative normalcy, and with teenage hormones raging, many of the occurrences in this book are simply laugh-aloud funny. Ron and Hermione begin to behave in an especially odd manner, and thanks to Fred and George, now proud owners of a popular joke shop, love potions circulate freely throughout the school despite administrative attempts to ban them. Quidditch also plays a major role for the last time as Harry becomes team captain and tries to instill some self-confidence in shaky Ron.

In the midst of the frivolity, Harry's private lessons with Dumbledore give him greater insight into what makes Voldemort tick, preparing him for the confrontation to come. It's such a relief to see so much of Dumbledore after his extended absence in the fifth book, and for the most part, he is in good humor, though he knows there is a very serious task ahead. Caught up in this task is Horace Slughorn, the new Potions master. Pompous but kind, he is key to unearthing one final tidbit about Voldemort's past but is reluctant to share his information. The scene in which Harry finally convinces him to hand it over is one of the funniest in the series, while the climax, which hinges so fully on Dumbledore, is profoundly moving. A refreshing and illuminating prelude to the finale.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - This book is far different from those that precede it because it lacks the structure of a typical school year. While there are students attending Hogwarts and we occasionally get hints of their activities, Harry, Ron and Hermione are removed from all of that. They journey together, questing to find and dispose of the Horcruxes that house pieces of Voldemort's shattered soul. Much of the book is spent on the run, and the world has become an oppressive place, which Rowling demonstrates through her unflinching willingness to kill off several major characters.

Knowledge of the past continues to be critical to Harry's journey. In this case, he has much to learn about Dumbledore, and how he decides to take this information will determine the direction of his path. Matters of faith and sacrifice come to the forefront as Harry faces his ultimate challenge. Despite the constant tension and frequent grief that fills this book, there is still occasion for laughter and light, and Rowling's focus upon redemption and bravery assures that the final installment is more uplifting than despairing. After nearly ten years with Harry and his loved ones, I turned the last page of this volume supremely satisfied, and I know that when I need a pick-me-up, Hogwarts is one place I can return to again and again.