Saturday, July 16, 2005

Harry Potter Day

Today is, of course, the release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the sixth Harry Potter book (just in case there is anyone in the Western world who doesn't know that already). I find it endlessly fascinating that this afternoon and evening, tens of millions of children, teenagers, and adults will be curled up on the couch doing exactly the same thing -- reading the same fiction book. That is a seriously powerful event. Other than the Bible, I can't think of a single work of literature that can make the same claim. How did Rowling do it? I've read the first four books (I got bogged down in the fifth and never finished it -- I'm told the first half drags, but the rest is better), and they are good. But they aren't the best books I've ever read. What is the source of the phenomenon? This is not an idle question. As writers, we should be striving for the kind of impact that Rowling has achieved with every tale we tell.

My best guess as to the reason for Harry's appeal is that he is a truly sympathetic character. Everyone has felt abused to some lesser or greater extent in their lives. Harry has been abused (far worse than any of us will be), and yet isn't bitter about at all. He's still a basically good and nice kid. And we respect that about him. We care about him almost immediately. When it turns out that he could be the most powerful wizard of his age -- if only he could overcome his disadvantaged background -- we cheer for him even more. And the final twist that keeps us turning the page is that there is obviously a lot about Harry that we don't know -- and neither do the characters. How did he defeat Voldemort as a baby (we have some hints now, but we don't know)? What were his parents like, why were they special? The mysteries, revealed piece at a time, draw us into the story and keep us there. Rowling, as I understand it, was not a professional writer. I don't know if she ever studied writing or if her grasp of all this is just instinct. She certainly wrote the right book at the right time in society, but to dismiss her success as simple luck would be completely wrong. There's a lot to learn here. We should all take a serious study of the phenomenon.

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