Every so often — for reasons that are mysterious and probably best left unexplored — the world cinches together for a grand shared experience. This can happen in the face of great tragedy or glory. It can be the result of breathtaking human achievement or a wonder of nature. Or, as we learned on the evening of July 20, 2007, it can happen because of a 759-page children’s novel.
Shivery anticipation for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows utterly dominated the cultural landscape in the last few weeks. In the Chicago suburb of Northbrook, postal workers who had delivered copies early were begging recipients to give the embargoed books back. (Miraculously, they succeeded.) The streets in front of the official Scholastic Book Shop, nestled in the New York City neighborhood of SoHo, were transformed into a mini Potter theme park, complete with portable pine trees, a purple double-decker Knight Bus, and a gaggle of fans who started queuing up at 7:30 a.m. Seattle saw grown men debase themselves by playing a bizarre — and fairly pathetic — form of Quidditch at the University of Washington bookstore.
It was impossible to avoid the hullabaloo and media noise: Newspapers could talk of nothing else. The Internet was aflame with rumors and rants. And as the clock ticked closer to midnight, the tension escalated. Outside of a Borders in Norman, Okla., a near-riot erupted when a large dude started screaming, ”I’ve got a van full of Harry Potters in the parking lot and I’m selling them for 20 bucks!” (Turns out he didn’t and wasn’t.) In England, ChildLine, a free 24-hour counseling service for children, added extra staff in case any of the major characters died at the end of the book. As things teetered on the brink of giddy chaos, one teenage fan at Skylight Books in Los Feliz, Calif., summed up the general feeling with a squeak: ”I’m actually shaking, for some reason.”
And then, sometime around 2 a.m., the din suddenly died down. Book spines twisted and gave a crack, and, time zone by time zone, a rapt silence enveloped the globe.
The British rail system is the oldest in the world. The first unmanned steam engine belched into life across the Atlantic in 1804, and spidery lines of track began to crawl up and down the U.K. Today, British rail stands as a majestic example of transportation infrastructure — clean, comprehensive, and the subject of national discussion and pride. It also happens to run infuriatingly behind schedule.
It’s impossible to know which small accidents of history — say, something as banal as a delayed train from Manchester to London — will actually change the world, but that’s how life works. Back in 1990, a 24-year-old woman found herself stalled on that track. Her name was Jo Rowling, and she was on her way home from apartment-hunting in Manchester, where she eventually moved with her boyfriend. But the relationship didn’t last, and her mother was terribly ill with multiple sclerosis. Stuck in the British countryside, she let her mind wander — and over the next four hours, she came up with an idea about a young wizard named Harry with black hair and a lightning-bolt scar.
”I had been writing almost continuously since the age of 6, but I had never been so excited about an idea before,” Rowling says on her charming, egalitarian website. ”To my immense frustration I didn’t have a functioning pen with me, and I was too shy to ask anybody if I could borrow one.”
Eventually, she procured a pen. Rowling was too poor to photocopy the resulting manuscript entirely — when she pitched it to agents, she would copy only the first three chapters and tuck them in prim, clear folders. Finally, in 1997, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published in England, and then, as Rowling herself likes to say, ”you probably know what happened next.”
And, of course, we do. That story of the boy wizard started to gain steam first in the U.K., then in the U.S. — where a record 8.3 million copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows were sold in the first 24 hours of its release — and then around the world. Over the last decade, children in Namibia, Norway, and Nepal have all wept over Harry’s murdered parents, memorized the intimate details of owl posts, and learned to fear the dangerous nature of Horcruxes. And as the Potter books slowly passed from fads to phenomenons to classics, a strange thing began to happen. The Internet generation, those hundreds of millions of children and teenagers who have never known a world free of conversation pockmarked by LOLs and OMGs, did something extraordinary.
Not just one book or one page, but satchels of books and hundreds of pages, over and over and over again. ”I was 7 [when I first started reading them],” says Colleen Wilson of L.A., who sported a black witch’s costume, a red-and-gold Gryffindor tie, and a bright, expectant smile at a Friday night book party at Dutton’s bookstore in Brentwood. ”I’m going to be 17 in a month. That’s my whole life. This is my life. Well, a lot of it.”
The themes of the Potter novels — and how the books revealed complicated truths about not just adults, school, and coming of age, but things as weighty as death and the scarring nature of loss — struck a deep chord with kids. And soon a bit of magic as old as the printed word emerged: The readers began writing themselves. The Web exploded with thousands of Potter sites, filled with everything from fan fiction to conspiracy theories to love letters to Rowling. (Though spoilers were a natural, unavoidable, and extremely unfortunate offshoot, it’s remarkable just how many kept the covenant of secrecy until the last book arrived.)
But it isn’t just children. An army of adults have fallen in love with Harry Potter. Not just because the books are compulsively readable — and they obviously are — but because they say something substantial. If the import of pop culture is that it reflects how we look at ourselves, then the Potter novels are the defining books of our times. (A remarkable feat, given that Rowling has often said she envisioned the whole series on that stalled train and has had the last chapter written for years.) It’s impossible to read the seven novels — particularly the last four — without squirming at their eerie ability to speak to current events. Innocents face an unseen evil that many refused to believe existed; untrustworthy governments fail to act; reporters are so focused on celebrity and lurid gossip that the truth remains hidden; a populace groans with desperate thirst for leadership. Racism, immigration, terrorism, corruption, the war on terror, national disasters: It’s all there… right alongside the grindylows and hippogriffs.
”Good epic storytelling always seems present, no matter when it was written,” says Lost exec producer Damon Lindelof. ”We read everything through the prism of what’s happening in the world around us. Voldemort is Osama. Azkaban is Gitmo. Death Eaters are al-Qaeda sleeper cells. But where the books are particularly effective is in Voldemort’s complete contempt for Muggles. Although his ‘war’ is solely against the good wizards, the fact that he is perfectly willing to kill innocent civilians in order to achieve his goal is what seems so enormously relatable — and so absolutely terrifying.”
And the effect on kids — to say nothing of book sales — has been massive. Despite a recent New York Times article that claimed that there is no evidence that children who read Potter continue to explore the young-adult canon, there are countless stories of teenagers who not only compulsively reread Rowling’s books, but have gleefully moved on to the lands of Narnia and Middle-earth and beyond. ”I love reading now because I read Harry Potter,” said Valerie Humphrey, a 16-year-old fan from Lumberton, N.C. ”If reading can do this with my imagination, maybe other books can do the same thing.”
Despite the huffing of killjoy academics and stuffy critics — we’re looking at you, Yale professor Harold Bloom — here’s the simple truth: As the books aged with the readers, they got darker and more complicated and transformed into something bigger and better. Something called art.
The morning of July 21 was a strange one. People were awakened by the whump of UPS boxes landing on their front porches. Bleary children propped their eyelids open, desperately reading as dawn broke. The latecomers dashed to bookstores large and small. As everyone began parsing the content of the book — and prepare yourself, dear readers, we’re going to do the same in just a few lines — there were sighs of relief. Many of the prepublication online spoilers were wrong. Despite the torture and darkness, the ending was solid and satisfying. Hogwarts was home to a climactic battle for the ages. Ron and Hermione kissed. Harry lived. Voldemort died. And then the book was finished.
”It was this amazing, cathartic moment, the end of 17 years’ work,” Rowling told NBC‘s Today just after the publication of the book. ”That was hard to deal with for about a week.”
Good endings are funny things. They provide both a rich satisfaction and a lingering emptiness. And when the 759th page of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is turned, it’s tempting to succumb to mourning. Unless something extremely unexpected comes to pass, we have seen the end of a literary phenomenon for the ages — the defining pop culture experience not only of the last decade, but very possibly of a generation.
Myself, I didn’t weep. Books don’t die. Not good ones. I just stopped and looked at a corner of my house, where my wife and I are building a room. Walls are going up. Paint is being applied. Our first child, a son, Theodore, is due in just a few months. In the corner of his room there is a low-slung bookcase that six books already call home — so I closed Deathly Hallows and introduced it to its brothers on that shelf. There the Potter novels will wait patiently — for a new generation, for Theo — as alive as Dumbledore’s portrait or the very air we breathe. Additional reporting by Carrie Bell, Jeff Jensen, Adam Markovitz, Whitney Pastorek, Sara Randazzo, Tanner Stransky, Hannah Tucker, Adam B. Vary, Christopher Whear, and Nicholas Wheat