This weekend several million children and young adults will get their hands on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling’s seventh and last Potter novel.
Six years from now, experts believe, some of those youngsters will be writing fantasy and science fiction novels themselves.
And if America is really lucky, the Potter generation might be more literate than the one that preceded it.
There are no real statistics, but some persuasive anecdotal evidence indicates that the Harry Potter books are encouraging reading and writing. The first six have sold more than 325 million copies worldwide, and the seventh is set for a first printing of 12 million copies in the United States alone.
A publishing force like that translates into a real societal influence, said Gordon Van Gelder, who for a decade has been editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, which has its headquarters in Hoboken, N.J.
“I do expect to see a number of writers in the next 10 to 20 years saying, `Harry Potter was one of the biggest influences on me as a kid.’ This is the biggest phenomenon of the last two decades.”
In fact, it’s one of the biggest ever in that field of writing broadly known as “speculative fiction,” which includes fantasy, science fiction and horror. Van Gelder cites just two other similar cases.
Beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings drew tens of millions into the fold, Van Gelder said. In the 1970s and 1980s Stephen King’s The Shining, The Stand and other novels accomplished the same thing. In the 1990s and 2000s, J.K. Rowling has assumed that role.
Van Gelder is right to expect that some Potter readers will go on to become writers, said Robin Wayne Bailey, a Kansas City science fiction writer and outgoing president of the Science Fiction Writers of America. “We used to have this discussion about Star Trek and Star Wars,” he said.
In both those cases, fans felt close enough to the work to try their hand at expanding the imagined universes. David Gerrold, an early Star Trek fan, actually wrote “The Trouble With Tribbles,” one of the most beloved episodes of the original Trek series that aired in the 1960s. Gerrold has gone on to write many novels with no Trek connection and has become a highly respected figure in science fiction.
Already there is evidence that Harry Potter is having the same effect, Bailey said.
“Nobody has made a real mark yet, but if you go online you’ll find Web sites and online magazines. You’ll see a lot of fan fiction, people who are writing their own Harry Potter stories. Some ... will inevitably make that leap to professional fiction writer.”
It will be enough for Sunny Church if the Potter series helps create a legacy of literacy—and she believes it’s doing just that.
“Fantasy will sometimes get kids reading when other forms don’t,” said Church, youth services supervisor for the Kansas City, Kan., Public Library’s West Wyandotte branch. “They can get lost in the story.”
The Potter books provide escapism—something all readers seem to need at one time or another.
At the library, Church said, “we’re seeing the kids we thought we’d lost. We see younger kids all the time, but we used to lose them at 10, 11 or 12. Now we’re seeing that age group again. If we can keep them interested in literature through that time and into their teens and young adulthood, they’ll stay with reading as they grow into adults.”
Adult literacy may be benefiting from Potter, too. Barbara Jolley, adult services supervisor with KCK’s main library, said she knows of several families in which the parents and kids read the books together.
“Harry Potter is not just a children’s phenomenon,” Jolley said. “Every time a new book in the series comes out, we go back and order copies of the others, because people will re read the older ones. It’s a craze throughout all age groups.”
Jolley had some comparisons on circulation of individual copies of the Potter novels vs. other books.
Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner has done very well, Jolley said. “But we have seven or eight copies right now, and the most any copy has circulated is 10 times.”
Impressive, but “some of the Harry Potter copies have circulated more than a hundred times—that’s one physical copy. If we have a fiction title that’s not a best-seller and it circulates five times in a year, we feel like we’ve hit a home run. Very few books that we have in the library would ever circulate a hundred times. That’s just phenomenonal.”
But is it too good to be true? Sunil Iyengar, director of research and analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington has his worries about Pottermania. The very behavior Jolley cites—the seemingly endless re readings of the Potter books—gives him pause.
“I would be a little worried that there isn’t more diversity—that other books for children are not commanding that kind of attention. You want them to be exposed to various genres. At that age, though, people sometimes do latch onto one or two authors for a while.”
Whether those possibilities become a new reality of more writers and readers in this country, though, remains to be seen, Iyengar emphasized.
In 2004 the NEA released its “Reading at Risk” study, which showed significant declines in reading for pleasure across all age groups. In 2008 the NEA and U.S. Census Bureau are scheduled to do a follow-up, surveying more than 17,000 people, and some results should be available as early as 2009.
Iyengar hopes the follow-up will show some improvement in reading rates.
If reading doesn’t rise, it poses disquieting problems. The first “Reading at Risk” showed that people who read for pleasure attend more performing arts functions—and even vote more often.
So if you think that the Harry Potter books are silly or that reading just isn’t that important in the digital age, Iyengar has news for you.
“As researchers, we try to view everything very rationally, based on what the facts tell us, and try not to get swayed by our intuitive feelings. But when you look at the data coming in, the conclusion is unavoidable: Our civic participation could be compromised by a deterioration of reading.”
No single phenomenon may be enough to stop that, said NEA Chairman Dana Gioia.
“I think the Harry Potter books are wonderful, because they create a kind of public sensation that gets many people reading, especially teenagers. But the celebration of a single series of books is not enough to support the habit of daily reading, which is essential to advance literacy in America.
“Two cheers for Harry Potter.”