The lit­er­ary magic of Harry Pot­ter

The Jakarta Post - - OPINION - William A. Glea­son The writer is pro­fes­sor of English at Prince­ton Univer­sity.

This sum­mer, at lit­er­ary fes­ti­vals and book­stores around the world, read­ers cel­e­brated the 20-year an­niver­sary of the de­but of the first book in JK Rowl­ing’s Harry Pot­ter series — Harry Pot­ter and the Philoso­pher’s Stone (re-ti­tled Harry Pot­ter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the United States) — and with good rea­son. Since the young wiz­ard’s first ap­pear­ance on June 26, 1997, the “Boy Who Lived” has be­come the “Icon Who En­dures.”

Over the last two decades, the Harry Pot­ter series has ex­panded to in­clude seven nov­els, with a to­tal of 450 mil­lion copies in print, in­clud­ing trans­la­tions into more than six dozen lan­guages. The eight films spawned by the books have grossed US$7 bil­lion, with Harry Pot­ter-themed toys and mer­chan­dise gar­ner­ing an­other $7 bil­lion. For those of a cer­tain age and lit­er­ary mind­set, it is dif­fi­cult to re­call a day when global au­di­ences weren’t spell­bound by Rowl­ing’s cre­ation.

That is why it is star­tling for me to re­call the sour re­cep­tion that my stu­dents gave Harry Pot­ter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the fall of 1999, when it ap­peared on the syl­labus of my Prince­ton Univer­sity course on pop­u­lar lit­er­a­ture, “Amer­i­can Best Sellers,” which I had been teach­ing since 1993. A sur­vey of pop­u­lar writ­ing from the 17th cen­tury to the present, the course in­vites stu­dents to con­sider how and why par­tic­u­lar best-sell­ing works have cap­ti­vated their au­di­ences. At the end of each term, I let the stu­dents se­lect the fi­nal book as an ex­er­cise in pop­u­lar taste. In 1999, they chose that first Harry Pot­ter novel.

Pot­ter-ma­nia had hit Amer­ica’s shores hard that year. In June, the series’ US pub­lisher rushed the hard­cover edi­tion of the sec­ond book, Harry Pot­ter and the Cham­ber of Se­crets, to book­stores. It pub­lished the third book, Harry Pot­ter and the Pris­oner of Azk­a­ban, along with the pa­per­back edi­tion of Sorcerer’s Stone, on Sept. 8.

By the end of that month, Rowl­ing’s nov­els held the first three slots on the New York Times fic­tion best-seller list, while the pa­per­back Sorcerer’s Stone sat atop the pa­per­back list. The mag­a­zine Time had even put the be­spec­ta­cled wiz­ard on its cover. You couldn’t turn around with­out knock­ing into Harry. My stu­dents were ea­ger to see what all the fuss was about.

Boy, were they dis­ap­pointed. For them, it was sec­ond-rate blather, nowhere near as wor­thy of their at­ten­tion as the cher­ished series from their child­hoods, such as The Chron­i­cles of Nar­nia or The Lord of the Rings. De­spite be­ing only a few years re­moved from those child­hoods, they laid into Harry Pot­ter with the same fer­vor as many of the no­to­ri­ously neg­a­tive adult re­view­ers: “De­riv­a­tive.” “Poorly writ­ten.” “Clichéd.” “Cloy­ing.” For them, Harry held no won­der, no warmth and no wit.

My stu­dents’ an­tipa­thy sur­prised me, but in hind­sight, it should not have. Though adults com­prised a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the Harry Pot­ter au­di­ence from the start, these stu­dents were in pre­cisely the wrong de­mo­graphic to ap­pre­ci­ate the phe­nom­e­non as it was un­fold­ing.

Too old for new chil­dren’s books, and too young to have chil­dren of their own, they were quick to in­sist that de­spite its cur­rent pop­u­lar­ity, the series would soon fade from mem­ory. The fol­low­ing au­tumn, in 2000, the next co­hort of stu­dents also picked Sorcerer’s Stone for the fi­nal text, and, like their peers, they con­fi­dently dis­missed it.

Fast-for­ward to the spring of 2007. I was again teach­ing “Amer­i­can Best Sellers,” af­ter hav­ing set the course aside for a few years. When it came time for the stu­dents to choose the fi­nal book, they went with Harry Pot­ter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I braced my­self for their crit­i­cisms.

This time, how­ever, the re­views were glow­ing. This new group, born be­tween 1986 and 1989, had first read Rowl­ing as pre-teens and early ado­les­cents, not col­lege stu­dents, which meant they had prac­ti­cally grown into young adults along­side Harry, Ron, and Hermione. I’ve taught my Best Sellers course twice since 2010, and both times the stu­dents have cho­sen a non-Harry Pot­ter novel to end the se­mes­ter.

Is it Pot­ter fa­tigue? Not likely, judg­ing from the re­cep­tion the series con­tin­ues to re­ceive in the other course in which I teach Rowl­ing’s work, “Chil­dren’s Lit­er­a­ture.” Here, it is my choice to put a Harry Pot­ter novel on the syl­labus.

In­stead of Sorcerer’s Stone, how­ever, I as­sign Harry Pot­ter and the Pris­oner of Azk­a­ban — my fa­vorite book of the seven, which marks the series’ shift from chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture to young adult fic­tion, through its com­plex treat­ment of fidelity, be­trayal, rage, and mercy. It is also the fa­vorite of many of my stu­dents.

But how long will Harry Pot­ter’s pop­u­lar­ity hold? Each time I teach “Chil­dren’s Lit­er­a­ture,” I start with a poll: “Which books on the syl­labus do you re­mem­ber read­ing as a child?” In 2010, 86 per­cent had read Harry Pot­ter and the Pris­oner of Azk­a­ban. In 2012, that fig­ure rose to 94 per­cent. But in the years since, the per­cent­age has dropped — to 87 per­cent in 2014, and to 81 per­cent in 2016.

This is all un­sci­en­tific, I know. But I’m cu­ri­ous: will it fall un­der 80 per­cent next spring, when I teach “Chil­dren’s Lit­er­a­ture” again? Will my stu­dents from 1999 and 2000 be proved right, with Harry Pot­ter fad­ing from rel­e­vance, never to be­come an en­dur­ing clas­sic? Or is there an equi­lib­rium point ahead, where the per­cent­age holds steady with­out de­clin­ing fur­ther? Per­haps Harry’s 40th an­niver­sary will pro­vide the an­swers. Un­til then, I’ll hap­pily keep invit­ing him into my class­room.

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