It’s been a bit of a Quidditch match this week in bookstores across the English-speaking world as children from 8 to 80 scrambled for their copies of “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” the latest book in the series that has become the biggest publishing phenomenon of the decade.
Did we say decade? Scholastic, Inc., British author J.K. Rowling’s lucky American publisher, says the industry has never seen anything like the Harry Potter boom. And did you say you’ve never heard of Quidditch, the game Harry is so good at? You are obviously a Muggle, a non-publishing-industry grownup or you haven’t talked to a child in three years. But then, even some of the inhabitants of Harry’s magical realm are at a loss. “I don’t really understand Quidditch,” says Colin plaintively, somewhere in Book 2 (“Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”). “Is it true there are four balls? And two of them fly round trying to knock people off their brooms?”
Yes, it is. It is also true that there are now four Harry Potter books (out of a projected seven) and all of them are flying round knocking people off the best-seller lists. As with Quidditch, only the initiated really understand it.
Last week, The New York Times announced that it is starting a list solely for children’s books, all because of Harry Potter. The earlier books have been hogging three of the coveted top 10 spots on the regular list for so long now they have given rise to a new verb: Authors who might otherwise have made it complain of having been “pottered.” With the fourth book out and more in the wings, the influential Times finally capitulated. “They’re good books. It’s great. They’re getting kids to read,” said an editor from rival publisher Simon & Schuster. “But frankly, it’s time for them to get the h*** out of the way.”
It’s not going to happen. No matter how the best-seller lists are rigged, the fact remains that, collectively, the Harry Potter books have sold a staggering 21 million copies in more than 30 languages (a Japanese translation of the first book had an initial print run of 400,000 and has sold strongly since its debut last December). With movie and merchandise rights factored in, it is projected that the adventures of the English boy wizard will eventually generate $1 billion. That was an astonishing enough figure for the hit movie “Titanic” to earn; for a rather old-fashioned children’s-book hero, it suggests magic.
For kids, by all accounts, the series really is spell-binding — the kind of door to an alternative world that parents and librarians are forever telling them books will open, but which seems to remain shut to most amid today’s electronic distractions. There were always children who would sneak off, as if to a private assignation, with their Tolkien or their Roald Dahl or their Conan Doyle or whoever the author of the moment might be. But it has been a long time since so many children, from Yorkshire to Yonkers to Yokohama, have fallen, all at once, for a book. What is the magic secret?
Cynics have had a field day with explanations. It is all a product of marketing hype, they say, of which last week’s excesses were the worst yet. But that is surely to reverse the cart and the horse: The first book, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” was an instant, hype-free hit way back in 1997. Other critics say the books are dumbed-down, derivative knockoffs of children’s classics from “Alice in Wonderland” to “Billy Bunter”; they succeed, it has been said, because they are about as mentally taxing as a TV sitcom. This strikes us as merely the literary snob’s way of putting what other critics have cheerfully confirmed: that Rowling is “a wizard herself at the magic art of bricolage”: the crafting of new stories out of recycled pieces of old stories. One of the writers she is most often accused of copying, the English fantasy writer Diana Wynne Jones, perhaps put it best: Rowling, she said, had obviously read all her (Jones’) books when she was young and then forgotten them. Now here they were bubbling up, along with so much else, out of the rich marsh of her own imagination.
That is a strikingly fair-minded assessment. The good news for Jones — and the bad news for the negativity mongers — is that Harry does seem to have opened that magic door, to the benefit of all concerned. Booksellers and librarians confirm rising sales for other writers as children hooked on Potter look for more where he came from. Fortunately, there is enough in that rich marsh to keep them pottering happily for years.
Meanwhile, any child could tell the cynics why they like Harry: He is good, he is funny, and he is smart. We could do with more such heroes — and fewer cynics.
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