The Literary Magic of Harry Potter

PRINCETON – This summer, at literary festivals and bookstores around the world, readers celebrated the 20-year anniversary of the debut of the first book in J.K. 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 $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 seventeenth 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 September 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 (as I newly did at the time), 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. The same thing happened in the fall of 2010. For both of these groups, “We grew up with Harry Potter” was a motto, not a label. Would Harry fade from memory? Not on your life.

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% had read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. In 2012, that figure rose to 94%. But in the years since, the percentage has dropped – to 87% in 2014, and to 81% in 2016.

This is all unscientific, I know. But I’m curious: will it fall under 80% 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.


William A. Gleason is Professor of English at Princeton University.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017.
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