Quite a lot can happen in twenty years. When I think back on my own life in the last two decades, I marvel how much it’s changed. In the last twenty years, the following has happened: I got married, moved to a different state, bought a condo, had two kids, sold the condo and bought a house, changed companies six times, gone through half dozen cars, lost two cats, gained one dog, written several first drafts of novels, self-published one, and read an untold number of books.
Seven of those books were the Harry Potter books.
The last twenty years were not quiet for J. K. Rowling, Jo to her friends, celebrated author of the Harry Potter books. From that fertile mind sprung seven books of the Harry Potter story, which in turn spawned eight feature films, at least three side books such as Tales of Beedle the Bard, one of which has now spawned a new feature film, which is the first of a planned five, plus a two-part play that is essentially the eight Harry Potter book, not to mention a copious amount of ancillary writing that appears on the official Harry Potter website, Pottermore. Hundreds of characters, dozens of locations, scores of magical spells, potions, charms, and encantations, all in the course of twenty years.
And then there’s that little thing about Rowling getting married and raising a family.
I was in books when Harry Potter emerged on the scene. At the time of the first book release in the US, there was little to no fanfare. It was just a book. I worked for Borders Books & Music back then, and our initial stock of the Sorcerer’s Stone was a whooping three units. But despite the fact that there wasn’t the worldwide media buzz that all things Harry Potter generates today, you could still tell that there was something special happening. Those three units were always sold out. Without fail, when someone would request it, a quick search for the book in our database would show that, yes, once again, the book was out of stock. It came up in morning team meetings, and then in emails from the corporate headquarters. Something was happening.
It wasn’t long before the publishing phenomenon that became the full Harry Potter franchise was in full bloom. Bookstores were hosting wizarding parties, and opening at midnight for the release of each new book. By the time the releases hit the mega frenzy they would become, I was out of the book industry, and working my way through corporate America. But I went back to the bookstore for those release parties. Not to buy the book, mind you, though of course I did. No, my interest was drawn far more by the crowd and the excitement and anticipation and overwhelming exhilaration a buyer displayed when they got the book in their hot little hands. There was the sense that you were witnessing something special that would not be matched again for a very, very long time, if ever.
It’s hard to overstate the impact Harry Potter, and J. K. Rowling had on the publishing world. Certainly, there had been huge publishing successes, and books that sold out in record numbers despite anyone’s expectations. Books like The Bridges of Madison County and Angela’s Ashes stayed on bestseller lists for years. But Harry Potter was different somehow. The way I saw it was in the children. Kids, who otherwise might not be interested in reading, were picking up Harry Potter books willingly. It was not uncommon to see a child with a Harry Potter book plunked down in the middle of the Children’s Section, plowing through page after page, while their parents continued to shop. These same children would be a quarter of the way through the book before it had even made it to the cash register. Harry Potter, perhaps more than any set of books before it, got children reading. Willingly.
And why not? Who doesn’t want to feel special the way Harry did? Who doesn’t want to think, when they are young, that the hospital made some kind of awful mistake, and that the people who are raising us that we call “mom” and “dad” are not really our parents, but that we are the scions of extraordinary people, and that we are called on to do extraordinary things? Literature is full of these stories. From Little Orphan Annie to Frodo Baggins, from Ender to Sparrowhawk of Earthsea, across the spectrum, literature of all kinds is filled with instances of outcasts reaching for something higher.
And, of course, with success come critics. They come in all forms and flavors, from those with legitimate gripes to those who are simply after a money-grab. There was the person who sued Rowling for supposedly stealing the idea of “muggle” for use in Harry Potter. There was Ursula K. Le Guin, who didn’t decry Harry Potter but didn’t think it was all that original, wishing Rowling had done more to acknowledge those who came before. It was a fair gripe, considering her own fantasy series had an orphan wizard learning how to live in his world predated Harry Potter by decades. But while there’s certainly merit to the idea that Harry had progenitors, but it cannot be said that Harry Potter was derivative. There is simply too much packed into the million plus amount of words to describe it as derivative. Some critics had nothing better to do than to bash it for being simply commercial escapism and not aspiring to something higher. Those critics are full of stuffing. They spend countless hours and wasted breaths decrying the wasted opportunities of the written word, yet are incapable of contributing anything worthwhile to the very body of literature they deem themselves experts in. They can, proverbially, pound sand. And what would a book about witches and wizards be without concerned parent groups having those books banned, ostensibly because of concerns their children would become wiccans or satanists?
I was not without criticisms of Harry Potter as I read it. From some unimaginative descriptions in the early works (the “deluminator” was, in the first book, described awkwardly as a “light put-outer”), to the speed of some of the action scenes that I had to read again because they went too fast for me to take it all in (of course, that could be, I sheepishly admit, my issue), to the editorial largess that crept into the fourth book and continued to until the end, to the unpleasant read that was The Order of the Phoenix, I certainly had my own issues with aspects of the narratives. In the case of The Order of the Phoenix, watching Harry go through that awkward, hormone-driven, mopey, unpleasant teenage period was simply not fun. I realize all teens go through it, and if you’re charting a story arc that starts when the boy is eleven and continues until he is eighteen, you are required to deal with it. But I didn’t really care to read it.
However, these things are minor annoyances in a grand, monumental achievement. When taken as whole, the world, story, characters, and villains are some of the most memorable in all of literature. I still maintain that Dolores Umbridge is most insidious villain in the last fifty years of literature. She is the Nurse Ratchet of the wizard of world and she’s absolutely horrifying. It is no mean feat to create such memorable moments such as the kind found in nearly every chapter in every single volume.
Twenty years goes by fast and slow. For Jo Rowling, the time spent crafting the Harry Potter works must have been both a great toil and positively a blur. I can state from experience that waiting for each one to be released was a toil, and reading was a blur. But, looking back, I can say that I witnessed something incredible, something, yes indeed, magical. For many writers, Rowling is the embodiment of the “unicorn”. A struggling, single mother, writing in cafes in Edinburgh to keep warm, strikes it big with a sweeping epic magical fantasy that turns her into the most beloved children’s author since Mother Goose. The real life story is a magical epic in and of itself, one in which any author, especially those still struggling, would use the Cruciatus Curse to be in. But while we can’t all share in that kind of success, we can say we were witness to something that we may never see again in the publishing world. And that’s okay. Because, while the anxious eagerness of the wait for each new book may never come again, the joy of discovering the magic for the first time will never leave. And few things were more enjoyable than watching my own eleven year old devour the books, one right after another, with the same hungry anticipation that we all had we began the journey Jo Rowling set forth for us twenty years ago.