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The enduring appeal of a bespectacled wizard

This summer, at literary festivals and bookstores worldwide, readers celebrated the 20th anniversary of the debut of the first book in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series — Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (retitled Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the US) — and with good reason.
Since the young wizard’s first appearance in June 26, 1997, the series has expanded to comprise seven novels, with 450 million copies in print, including translations into more than six dozen languages. The eight films spawned by the books have grossed $7 billion, with themed toys and merchandise earning a further $7 billion.
For those of a certain age and literary mindset, it is difficult to recall a day when global audiences were not spellbound by Rowling’s creation. That is why it is startling for me to recall the sour reception that my students gave Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the autumn of 1999, when it appeared on the syllabus of my Princeton University course on popular literature, American Best Sellers, which I had been teaching since 1993.
A survey of popular writing from the 17th century to the present, the course invites students to consider how and why particular bestselling works have captivated their audiences. At the end of each term, I let the students select the final book as an exercise in popular taste. In 1999, they chose that first Harry Potter novel.
At the time, Rowling’s novels held the first three slots on the New York Times fiction bestseller list, while the paperback Sorcerer’s Stone topped the paperback list. Time magazine had even put the bespectacled wizard on its cover. You could not turn around without knocking into him. My students were eager to see what all the fuss was about.
Boy were they disappointed. For them it was second-rate blather, nowhere near as worthy of their attention as the cherished series from their childhoods, such as The Chronicles of Narnia or The Lord of the Rings. Despite being only a few years removed from those childhoods, they laid into Harry Potter with the same fervor as many of the notoriously negative adult reviewers. For them, he held no wonder, warmth or wit.
Their antipathy surprised me, but in hindsight it should not have. Though adults comprised a significant portion of the Harry Potter audience from the start, these students were in precisely the wrong demographic to appreciate the phenomenon as it was unfolding.

Nearly 20 years ago, college students dismissed the Harry Potter novels as second rate, but there is a reason why later generations thought differently. 

William A. Gleason

Too old for new children’s books, and too young to have children of their own (as I newly did at the time), they were quick to insist that despite its current popularity, the series would soon fade from memory. The following autumn, in 2000, the next cohort of students also picked Sorcerer’s Stone for the final text, and like their predecessors, they confidently dismissed it.
Fast-forward to the spring of 2007. When it came time for the students to choose the final book, they went with Sorcerer’s Stone. I braced myself for their criticisms.
This time, however, the reviews were glowing. This new group, born between 1986 and 1989, had first read Rowling as preteens and early adolescents, not college students, which meant they had practically grown into young adults alongside Harry, Ron and Hermione. The same thing happened in 2010. For both these groups, “We grew up with Harry Potter” was a motto, not a label. Would he fade from memory? Not on your life.
I have taught the course twice since 2010, and both times the students have chosen a non-Harry Potter novel to end the semester. Is it Potter fatigue? Not likely, judging from the reception the series continues to receive in the other course in which I teach Rowling’s work, Children’s Literature. Here, it is my choice to put a Harry Potter novel on the syllabus. I assign Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban — my favorite book of the seven — which marks the shift from children’s literature to young adult fiction through its complex treatment of fidelity, betrayal, rage and mercy. It is also the favorite of many of my students.
But how long will the popularity hold? Each time I teach Children’s Literature, I start with a poll: Which books on the syllabus do you remember reading as a child? In 2010, 86 percent had read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. In 2012, that figure rose to 94 percent. But in the years since, the percentage has dropped — 87 percent in 2014, and 81 percent in 2016.
This is all unscientific, I know. But I am curious: Will it fall under 80 percent next spring, when I teach Children’s Literature again? Will my students from 1999 and 2000 be proved right, with Harry Potter fading from relevance, never to become an enduring classic? Or is there an equilibrium point ahead, where the percentage holds steady without declining further? Perhaps Potter’s 40th anniversary will provide the answers. Until then, I will happily keep inviting him into my classroom.
• William A. Gleason is professor of English at Princeton University.
© Project Syndicate