We’re off to see the wizard

Harry Pot­ter has cast a read­ing spell over a gen­er­a­tion. The fi­nal in­stal­ment of his magic ap­pears next week­end, writes Peter Lalor

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

ADECADE af­ter Harry Pot­ter and the Philoso­pher’s Stone rewrote the rules of pub­lish­ing, it is clear J. K. Rowl­ing’s se­ries is far more than just a cin­derella story of a hum­ble boy wizard who de­fies the curse of death and sub­ur­ban cir­cum­stance. It is the tale of a lit­er­ary form that did the same.

Harry Pot­ter is a phe­nom­e­non, an epic nar­ra­tive where the black marks on the page rose up to bat­tle the hum­ming trick­eries of cy­berspace and the por­ta­ble en­ter­tain­ment de­vices that threat­ened to lay them to waste for­ever. It is a heart- warm­ing, against- the- odds tri­umph of good sense and old- fash­ioned val­ues over the non­sense of the ex­perts who an­nounced that the clas­sic chil­dren’s book was dead.

The dark forces gath­ered be­fore Harry Pot­ter took lit­er­ary form and have con­tin­ued to down­load at a steady rate since. Back then pub­lish­ers and teach­ers urged au­thors to of­fer up bite- sized snacks of earnest ur­ban re­al­ism for the at­ten­tion deficit gen­er­a­tion. The Fa­mous Five were in ther­apy and the Se­cret Seven had formed a sup­port group that pre­sented its out­comes by bul­let point. The PlayS­ta­tion and MP3 moved in to fill ev­ery flick­er­ing mi­crosec­ond of con­cen­tra­tion.

The boy wizard, how­ever, was not to be rushed, un­der­es­ti­mated or tri­fled with. De­spite the dis­trac­tions and doom­say­ers, armies of chil­dren and adults have marched into book­shops and out again with book af­ter weighty book and the fi­nal in­stal­ment, Harry Pot­ter and the Deathly Hal­lows , looks as if it will out­sell its six pre­de­ces­sors.

And it’s no pass­ing fad. The first book, Harry Pot­ter and the Philoso­pher’s Stone ( it was reti­tled Harry Pot­ter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for the US, where pub­lish­ers thought the mod­ern world had erased any me­mory of what a philoso­pher was, or is), was pub­lished in June 1997. In the decade since, more than 325 mil­lion Harry Pot­ter books have been sold in 64 lan­guages rang­ing from Gu­jarati to Ger­man.

In the tiny Aus­tralian out­post of the global pub­lish­ing in­dus­try the half- dozen Harry Pot­ter ti­tles have sold nine mil­lion copies. A lit­er­ary novel by a fine writer such as Paul Auster or Don DeLillo will sell 10,000 copies, tops; Rowl­ing does one mil­lion in her first week in New Zealand and Aus­tralia.

Rowl­ing and Harry Pot­ter have rat­tled the cage like few fic­tional works. The books sparked a lit­er­ary revo­lu­tion among the great un­read and left their mark be­yond the lit­er­ary land­scape, en­gag­ing and per­haps even re­ar­rang­ing the world. It is ev­i­dent wher­ever you look.

On BBC ra­dio one night early last month au­thor Nas­sim Taleb, a self- de­scribed ‘‘ epis­te­mol­o­gist ran­domist’’ in­cluded Pot­ter along­side Septem­ber 11, the com­puter, the laser and the tsunami as part of his black swan phe­nom­ena ( ran­dom events that con­tra­dict ev­ery­thing we thought we knew but af­fect ev­ery­thing we know from there on in).

Harry Pot­ter may be a tri­umph of the clas­sic novel form but ref­er­ences to him are found in a mil­lion shapes in ev­ery cor­ner of cy­berspace. Dur­ing April and May there were 45 days when he was the sub­ject of more blogs than Ge­orge W. Bush. In a cor­ner of the bl­o­go­sphere some­where you can find a group com­par­ing ‘‘ Pot­ter­verse’’ ex­is­ten­tial­ism with Jean- Paul Sartre’s def­i­ni­tions of the same. The con­trib­u­tors are earnest and stu­dious, cit­ing book ref­er­ences from both sources with easy fa­mil­iar­ity. Some­where in the thread some­one posts a dis­cus­sion about death be­tween the ghost Nearly Head­less Nick and the boy wizard. At some stage Soren Kierkegaard gets a men­tion.

And Harry was chal­leng­ing God long be­fore Richard Dawkins and Christo­pher Hitchens reen­tered the ar­gu­ment re­cently.

While the sec­u­lar cel­e­brate the fact the books have brought chil­dren back to the writ­ten word, con­ser­va­tive Chris­tians warn Harry and his magic are an agent of the devil. And Lord knows what al- Qa’ida makes of HP.

In 2002 Rome’s chief ex­or­cist pon­tif­i­cated that the Pot­ter books carry the ‘‘ the sig­na­ture of the king of dark­ness’’. For­tu­nately for Rowl­ing, Catholics don’t is­sue fat­was, and even if they did most Catholics aren’t lis­ten­ing. Even the con­ser­va­tive Arch­bishop of Syd­ney, Ge­orge Pell, wrote in a col­umn that while he found the Pot­ter books en­joy­able fan­tasy, he was al­ways a J. R. R. Tolkien man.

Some priests may not like Harry but the med­i­cal fra­ter­nity has noted his pres­ence. The head of pe­di­atrics at the Univer­sity of Melbourne uses the Pot­ter nar­ra­tives to in­form his lec­tures and to help his stu­dents to un­der­stand chil­dren.

And The New Eng­land Jour­nal of Medicine pub­lished a let­ter from a pe­di­a­tri­cian, Howard J. Ben­nett, who re­ported treat­ing three eight to 10- year- olds for ten­sion headaches traced back to their read­ing the 870- page Harry Pot­ter and the Or­der of the Phoenix in 2004. Ben­nett noted that when they were told the best way to cure the headache was to stop read­ing, two chil­dren opted for painkillers in­stead.

The magic of the book has rubbed off on the pub­li­ca­tion process. The Bri­tish pub­lisher de­nies the book is be­ing printed in the dark be­hind ra­zor wire by east Ger­man fac­tory work­ers who are strip- searched on leav­ing work, but it does gag all who come in con­tact with it by forc­ing pub­lish­ers and book­shop work­ers to sign con­fi­den­tial­ity agree­ments. Ask the lo­cal pub­lish­ers a ques­tion and they won’t an­swer it be­cause they can’t. The mas­ter copy of the man­u­script moves from one ter­ri­tory to an­other un­der es­cort.

Rowl­ing’s story is al­most as well- known as the ad­ven­tures of the char­ac­ters she cre­ated. An un­em­ployed sin­gle mother, she came up with the idea of the boy wizard while she was stranded on a train be­tween Manch­ester and Lon­don. The death of her mother fur­ther in­formed the sit­u­a­tion.

All fairy­tales in­volve the hero de­fy­ing ex­pec­ta­tions, and Rowl­ing is no ex­cep­tion. The first book was re­jected by 12 pub­lish­ing houses be­fore Blooms­bury gave her $ 3000 and ad­vised her to get a day job. It printed 1000 copies of the first edi­tion, 500 ear­marked for li­braries.

The Amer­i­cans were more op­ti­mistic, giv­ing Rowl­ing an ad­vance of $ US150,000 for the first US rights, good money for most writ­ers, but a frac­tion of what was to come. Rowl­ing is now a bil­lion­aire and was voted Bri­tain’s great­est liv­ing au­thor in a mag­a­zine poll last year, re­ceiv­ing three times as many votes as the run­ner- up, fan­tasy writer Terry Pratch­ett. Last month, busi­ness mag­a­zine Forbes put Rowl­ing, 48, in its list of the 100 most pow­er­ful peo­ple alive.

Not that ev­ery­one is wild about Harry. Al­most 40 per cent of in­de­pen­dent book­sell­ers in Bri­tain refuse to stock the new book be­cause they can­not com­pete with the dis­counts of­fered by the chain stores.

In Aus­tralia Harry Pot­ter and the Deathly Hal­lows has a list price of $ 49.95, but most peo­ple will buy it for less than $ 30. One in­de­pen­dent book­seller in Melbourne rails that he makes no money on HP and says the book has ru­ined busi­ness. But other book­sell­ers, such as Syd­ney’s Glee­books and Bet­ter Read than Dead, see HP as an op­por­tu­nity.

Glee­books charges $ 135 for tick­ets to ride the Glee­warts Ex­press, a Harry Pot­ter- themed steam train trip to a se­cret des­ti­na­tion. The first such trip, to cel­e­brate the pub­li­ca­tion of the third Pot­ter novel, at­tracted 300 cus­tomers, but 1000 will ride this time.

A spokesman for the book­shop could have taken an­other 2000.

Even at $ 29 book­sell­ers make a profit; it just an­noys them it is not as hand­some as usual.

Rowl­ing guards her work like a mother hen. She stands on set when movies are made to en­sure they are faith­ful to a tale she ad­mits is dark.

‘‘ My books are largely about death,’’ she said in an in­ter­view some time back. ‘‘ They open with the death of Harry’s par­ents. There is Volde­mort’s ob­ses­sion with con­quer­ing death and his quest for im­mor­tal­ity at any price, the goal of any­one with magic. I so un­der­stand why Volde­mort wants to con­quer death. We’re all fright­ened of it.’’

But we are fas­ci­nated as well. Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy, Syd­ney, aca­demic Rose­mary John­ston, a chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture ex­pert and an un­abashed Pot­ter fan, cel­e­brates the ‘‘ tri­umph of Rowl­ing’s black marks on the page’’. She be­lieves the Pot­ter decade has been a pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ence for teach­ers, pub­lish­ers and chil­dren.

‘‘ It changed ev­ery­thing,’’ she says. ‘‘ Prior to the Pot­ter phe­nom­e­non there was all this talk, I use to read it over and over again, pub­lish­ers would say things such as: ‘ we live in a vis­ual age, chil­dren want quick grabs, you’ve got to write in the quick grab, you can’t write a long para­graph, you can’t have a long chap­ter, you can’t have big words’. And yet here comes Pot­ter with six or seven hun­dred pages in the books, with big words, with long para­graphs some­times and with com­plex ex­is­ten­tial ideas, and it shows that all that talk that pub­lish­ers and teach­ers were go­ing on with was in­cor­rect and that if you get a story that’s grip­ping enough chil­dren will en­gage with the read­ing of it.’’

John­ston re­mem­bers watch­ing seven- yearolds walk out of a book­shop with the 700- page sec­ond book. ‘‘ Peo­ple were say­ing scep­ti­cally that they weren’t go­ing to read it, but they did, and what’s more they en­joyed it,’’ she says.

‘‘ It’s been a good les­son be­cause there is a power in the printed world. And we do live in a vis­ual age and we do live in the age of the quick grab, but if you get that magic in­gre­di­ent in the story and pack­age it in a way that’s at­trac­tive, then the magic of the black mark on the white page still works.’’

John­ston ar­gues that, while the books de­fied

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