Harry Potter Magic
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RAY SUAREZ: 12:01 a.m., Saturday, July 16 — a time Harry Potter fans awaited anxiously. From Sydney to Tokyo, from Beijing to Buenos Aires, they lined up to buy “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” number six in a series of seven.
In the U.S., 6.9 million books, at about $17 each, were sold the first day, surpassing the five million mark set by the last book in the series two years ago.
GIRL: It’s just awesome. It’s a phenomenon. It’s Harry Potter.
RAY SUAREZ: The fantasy series chronicles the adventures of Harry Potter, the ordinary kid/wizard-in-training who makes his magic at the British Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Author J.K. Rowling read from the latest and darkest installment at a midnight party in a castle in Edinburgh; this excerpt about a trip to a magic store.
J.K. ROWLING: There were bins full of trick wands, the cheapest merely turning into rubber chickens or pairs of pants when waved, the most expensive beating the young wary user around the head and neck.
RAY SUAREZ: Since the first Harry Potter book was published in 1997, 270 million have been sold in 62 languages, and inspired four movies, including one to be released this fall.
We get more from Julia Keller, cultural critic for the Chicago Tribune; and Michael Gorman, president of the American Library Association.
Well, Julia Keller, everything about this book seems to ask for superlatives, fastest selling book ever, first among all first printings ever. Now that you’ve read the thing, how is it?
JULIA KELLER: Well this is one of those rare times, Ray, when the hype actually ends up being completely accurate. I was one of those critics who was really ready to be utterly contrarian and to say, Harry Potter, what is this? People don’t know what they’re doing when they say this thing is great.
But it’s sensational. It’s a wonderful read and it’s a wonderful series. And my own memories of childhood are just how wonderful a series is when you see books arranged on a shelf that all have these similar bindings. And the Harry Potter series and this volume kind of caps that even though it’s the next to last one. It’s just absolutely splendid. It’s wonderful. It certainly lived up to all my expectations and apparently those of children everywhere.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Michael Gorman, librarians tend to have longer attention spans than faddists do, and they watch books come and go. What is it about these books that has made them in hardy staple of youth culture worldwide apparently?
MICHAEL GORMAN: Well, the Harry Potter books are a publishing phenomenon. I mean, the figures are there. But I think the point about them is that they’ve entranced children because they introduce them to worlds that they can lose themselves in, worlds of imagination and understanding other kinds of people.
They enrich their vocabularies. They make a life, an imagined life, that a child can really enjoy and learn something from as well as lose themselves in so they’re the best of entertainment but also of a kind of education.
RAY SUAREZ: Is there an impact on the culture that sort of feeds on itself almost like a force of nature so that if you’re 13, if you want to talk about what everybody else is talking about you have to read them?
MICHAEL GORMAN: I think so but I think that there’s more to it than a fad. This is not, you know, a publishing version of the hula-hoop. It’s something that will live with those children into their adulthood in the same way as you and I read books when we were children that really impressed us and have lived with us ever since. So it’s not just a fad. It’s an enriched sense of looking at the world that makes you… makes your horizons wider.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Julia, like any good journalists you didn’t stick with your own impressions. You checked and you gave the book to a 12 year old. Tell us about their quick reaction.
JULIA KELLER: Yeah, I did. Well, first of course I had to wrest it away from him. For some reason he wanted to try to finish it first. No, I think definitely the verdict is in from kids. They love them.
But let me just disagree a little bit with your other guest. I’ve heard it said that these books are good because they create this other world. But to me all good fiction does that. Whether it’s fantasy or something that’s, you know, right around the corn every, all fiction does that. I think we have to look deeper for why these books are so resonant.
And I think this really speaks to the author’s achievement, the narrative brio and the great humor. I mean, this is what I emphasized in my review. I think it’s often overlooked that these books are deeply, deeply funny even in the midst of the dark tragedy that’s often emphasized. I mean, they’re a hoot. And it’s the kind of humor that can straddle, you know, the young and the scatological humor, and then those of us who consider ourselves a little more mature. There’s a deep humor of characterization there, too.
And again there are very few books that can do that well, that can be both funny and dark and that can please a 12 year old and those of us who are just 12 in our hearts.
RAY SUAREZ: Humor I think has been widely described as the hardest thing to pull off in literature but certainly if you’re going to speak to adults and to children and have them all laughing, that’s an even tougher assignment, isn’t it?
JULIA KELLER: Well, it’s true. When you say humor, in some sense we’ve come to think of a monologue, you know, a late night TV show’s monologue. By humor I really mean — and this comparison will seem a bit exalted but I think it can be defended — the humor of a Jonathan Swift or some of the humor that is in some of our great epic poetry, even Shakespearean.
I really think we’re going to look back on this time and look back on the Harry Potter series and really see an achievement that’s really quite towering, that lives beyond what the sales figures are today. I don’t think there’s any question about that. But it’s again it’s this — the deep-veined humor that really transcends any of these darker elements. It’s a humor we find in “Wind in the Willows” or “Peter Rabbit” or “A Wrinkle in Time,” many fairy tales that children read and enjoy.
You’ve got this dark tragic theme, certainly good and evil, these ultimate battles for the soul and even some deaths, of course. But you also have this radiant, radiant stream going right through the middle of all this dark valley and it’s a chuckle; it’s a laugh.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Michael Gorman these books have been widely credited with turning non-readers into readers. But do we know that to be true?
MICHAEL GORMAN: Well, we believe that for children 10 and under that there has been a big increase in reading. That’s not found in the older, you know, teenage years but then I suspect that older teenagers always have other things to do other than read.
And I think the important thing is — and I agree entirely with Julia — that this isn’t just another world. It’s a very richly textured world with many different layers. We read it’s a school story. It’s a magical story. It’s an adventure story. It’s a detective story in many ways.
The point is that if children at that age cultivate the habit of reading, enlarge their vocabularies, enlarge their imaginations, that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. What J.K. Rowling has done for us is to create this world, this very richly textured, layered world that can be appreciated in many levels including that of humor, and that is an experience, a mental experience, which will last with you for the rest of your life.
RAY SUAREZ: How will we know whether kids who have gotten a kick out of this series will actually move on to other things, whether reading for pleasure, reading for leisure will become part of their lives?
MICHAEL GORMAN: Well, the American Library Association at its Web site www.ala.org has a list of other books — some of which were mentioned by Julia — that Harry Potter fans could move on to, not necessarily better but a similar kind of experience.
And if they go through and read those books, then they will become — I’m absolutely convinced that if you are a reader at that age, pre-puberty and you’re really invested in reading, then even if you go away from it during your later teenage years you will come back to it as an adult and your life will be greatly enriched thereby.
RAY SUAREZ: And, quickly, Julia, if you’re just aging into that generation that is able to read these books, do you have to start at the beginning and read through the series?
JULIA KELLER: No, not at all. In fact that’s another great point about these. She handles exposition so beautifully, so you never feel like you’re catching up. You feel like the exposition is kind of layered in.
And I just wanted to add too I heard an interviewer from Ray Bradbury recently and someone asked him about reading books, and this speaks to Michael’s point, that — and he said without the books of his childhood, his life would have been a lot lonelier. And I thought that was such an exquisite way to describe what these kinds of books do for us, that we carry them with us as we go forward.
And I think certainly the Potter books are going to be those that we keep tucked under our arms and our imaginations.
RAY SUAREZ: Julia Keller, Michael Gorman, thank you both.
MICHAEL GORMAN: Thank you.
JULIA KELLER: Thank you.