Speaking Volumes: The Trouble with Harry

(First published in Speaking Volumes, Business Standard, on July 15, 2005. This was the obligatory pre-Potter piece.)

Like every other Muggle on the planet, I’ll be queuing up tomorrow for the sixth book in the Harry Potter saga. There are good reasons for doing this.

Millions of copies of J K Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince have been shipped around the world; in the continuing saga of Harry Potter and the Frumious Embargo, the security’s been tight enough to prevent leaks. One copy was accidentally sold at a store in Vancouver, but in a nauseating display of Potterian solidarity, the boy who bought it returned the book, saying that he would prefer to read it along with the other fans.

If you need further endorsement, the current Pope believes the Potter books distort “Christianity in the soul”; various parents’ groups want the books banned for promoting witchcraft; and minority groups have demanded more positive characters “of colour”, given that J K Rowling has already included strong women characters and gay teachers. The Potter books have spawned an entire subculture of fan-fiction on the Net, a hugely profitable film series, and an even more profitable set of merchandising franchises. Not bad for a boy wizard with a geeky haircut, funny glasses and a sinister absence of adolescent pimples.

But standing in line this time feels a bit like buying tickets for Woodstock Two when you were part of the generation that got down in the mud and rain for the real thing. It’s hard to look back now and remember the exact quality of the excitement that the first Harry Potter book generated, the astonishment and delight with which we read about a boy wizard discovering Quidditch and battling Voldemort at Hogwarts. J K Rowling returned all but the most hardened, most resistant of readers to the pleasures of childhood reading; it was like being present at the birth of Alice in Wonderland or the Winnie the Pooh books or The Wizard of Oz. Over the years, as Harry Potter has grown up, so have we.

Now the series has two distinct sorts of readers. The first I envy; this is the generation that is just old enough to read the Potter books for the first time. Even if they’re doing it with the buzz and the hype, the banners and the plot summaries, there is something magical about being introduced to the Leaky Cauldron and Bertie Bott’s disgusting jellybeans and Dumbledore for the very first time.

The second is us: battered by the avalanche of publicity, aware that this is either a brand or a meme we’re buying, not a book any more, seeking refuge in irony and parodies even as we shrug our shoulders and add our mite to the Potter industry. “Harry Potter” has become the kind of term to which you append “phenomenon” instinctively. Rowling’s saga is up there with The Da Vinci Code and other 21st century bestsellers as one of the great marketing triumphs of the publishing industry. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and this shouldn’t detract from Rowling’s success, but it is impossible to read Harry Potter now without a mental PowerPoint presentation switching on that lists sales by continent and country, warehousing statistics, publicity plans and everything that it was once considered unnecessary for a reader to know about a book.

And over the last two or three books, the series itself has lost some of its edge. Rowling is, to borrow a term from television, perilously close to jumping the shark, if she hasn’t done so already. There is now a formula: a boarding school story, on the same lines as Blyton’s school sagas and the Billy Bunter books, a Quidditch match, a dose of magic, then the Fight Between Good and Evil, with Voldemort sneering for all he’s worth, and finally an action-packed battle sequence. One of the main characters might die, just for added interest, sparking off slightly gruesome guessing games on a thousand fan sites.

Oh well. Tomorrow, even so, I’ll be there, muttering at a hundred kids to get out of my way unless they want an elbow in their sweet little faces, trying to get my fix just like the millions of other Harry junkies around the world. When you’re already hooked, you go along for the ride; and who knows, this time around, it might be a good trip after all.

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