A Wizard Lesson from Hogwarts

Article excerpt

Byline: NORMAN LEBRECHT

A HUNDRED years from now, when a fourth generation of scholars and biographers goes ferreting over the Harry Potter legacy, opinion will divide between the esoteric minimalists and those who take a broader world view of Joanne Rowling's historic achievement. The more blinkered academics will focus their researches on numerical records and the transformation of children's publishing in the 21st century.

On the eve of her fifth book, they will note, Rowling had sold 160 million copies of her works in every living language, including (to Giscardian resentment) French. Only the Bible claimed more translations.

The fifth in Rowling's progressive sequence of seven books, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, was the fastest selling title ever counted, with 1.2 million advance internet orders received before it was put out on sale at one minute past the witching hour on 21 June 2003, another totemic moment in the diaries of obsessive Potterists.

By now, the movies, the merchandising and the mega-trinket marketing were yielding revenues in the meaningless billions, with the makers of Coca-Cola, Mars bars and Barbie dolls cashing in on Harry's unstoppable global appeal and a flurry of wildcat harry.coms protesting at the conscienceless commercialisation.

The generic impact was no less impressive. Children's fiction, long the Cinderella of serious publishing, was catapulted into the second hottest category with a fistful of shy writers enjoying parallel growth from mythical narratives with a pronounced moral dimension.

Chief among them were the Oxford daemonist Philip Pullman, the San Francisco mystifier Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket's author) and the Irish fantasist Eion Colfer, whose Artemis Fowl stories periodically topped the sales charts in the hiatus between one Harry Potter and the next.

The requickening of interest in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings was, at least in part, a side effect of the Potter explosion.

All of them will keep academics in footnotes for the next century and more, but it is, nonetheless, a limited interpretation. The bolder view that will emerge is that Rowling, a subsistence-level, single mother in flint-faced Edinburgh, succeeded over the course of six years in overturning the established order in western culture, subverting the dominance of the visual with the primacy of the word.

Think back to June 1997 when 1,000 Bloomsbury copies of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone sneaked near-unnoticed into British bookshops, after being rejected by some 20 publishers for being variously too long, archaic and politically incorrect.

THE pronounced wisdom was that children were uninterested in reading.

Teachers and their unions set up a demand for more "visual aids".

Preteens returned home from seven hours of unstrenuous schooling to slump, semi-vegetative, in front of flickering images of vaguely sexual connotation.

The publishing dictum, impressed on me when I proposed a story about kids with a chronic illness, was that "we no longer take on children's books without a television tie-in". Rowling changed all that, surreptitiously and within months.

Harry Potter spread by word of playground mouth and reprinted time after time. …