By Carol Memmott, USA TODAY Mon Jul 11, 6:58 AM ET
At midnight Friday, Laura Schreiber of Port Angeles, Wash., will be exactly where she was on June 21, 2003: in line at Port Book & News, her local bookstore, to buy the latest
Harry Potter novel.
Two years ago, it was Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. This year, it's the eagerly awaited Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the sixth and next-to-last in a series that is destined to become one of the legends in publishing history.
"Even though I'm a teenager, it's still something that excites and interests me," says Schreiber, 18, who began reading Harry Potter when she was 11. "Even if you're an adult, it doesn't change the fact that it's a really great story that people get hooked on."
So much for talk a few years ago that children, as they got older, would outgrow their fascination with the boy wizard who tries to set the world - or at least his world - right.
Since the appearance of the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, in 1998, more than 102 million copies of the books in a series created by British author
J.K. Rowling have been printed in the USA alone. More than 270 million in 62 languages have sold worldwide.
Already, pre-orders of Half-Blood Prince are breaking records at bookstores and online booksellers. Scholastic, Rowling's U.S. publisher, is confident enough to announce an initial press run of 10.8 million - a number unheard of in the book world. Even mega-best-selling novelist John Grisham has never had a first printing of more than 2.8 million.
Like Schreiber, millions of fans are so spellbound by Harry that they can't seem to let go.
Take, for example, Sudipta Bandyopadhyay, also 18, of Somerset, N.J., and a student at Yale. He says he has read all the Harry Potters "at least three or four times" and expects to stay up all night to read Half-Blood Prince.
The appeal? "You can escape to a different world where you don't have to worry about going to your research lab or your 9-to-5 job," he says. "It's a way to escape from your daily tediousness, and, at the same time, it has the elements of the classical myth in it, told in a new and novel way."
For readers who are more earth-bound (or maybe on another planet and have never heard of Harry Potter), Rowling's books recount the tale of an orphaned wizard boy who lives with his cruel and unloving (and non-magical) Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon and his bullying cousin, Dudley Dursley.
Just when it looks as though he might spend his entire, miserable life locked in the Dursleys' cupboard, Harry learns of his magical powers. Off he goes to the otherworldly Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where he uses his newfound abilities to battle evil.
'Very long mystery novel'
Why this has translated into the world's most successful publishing story is of much conjecture among booksellers, book buyers and even academicians.
"For one thing, this is a very long mystery novel that we are getting in installments," says Philip Nel, who teaches a course titled "Harry Potter's Library" at Kansas State University. Nel also is the author of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter Novels: A Reader's Guide (2001).
"Each book ends with some suspense. You want to know what happens next. Rowling has even built a mystery element right into the title: Who's the half-blood prince?"
The answer to that and other questions - including widespread conjecture on fan Web sites about who might die in this latest Harry Potter - are, as usual, being kept a closely guarded secret by the market-savvy people at Scholastic, which is doing everything it can to build anticipation for the book's release.
Never underestimate the hoopla, says Laura Porco of bookseller Amazon.com. She sees Rowling's success as "a coming together of a great confluence of events," including today's souped-up media coverage.
"In the age of the Internet, 24-hour news television, the media can't be underestimated in terms of how quickly we learn about the series," she says.
But, Porco adds, that doesn't take anything away from the storytelling.
"It's 'Who shot J.R.?' but in a much more literary way."
Nel insists there's no single answer on why Rowling appeals to so many different readers.
"What she has created in the Harry Potter novels is a successful hybrid," he says. "There are elements of classical mythology in the book, for example, and there are allusions to many other literary works. There's the fantasy genre she's pulling in, there's the boarding-school-novel genre that she's pulling in, the coming-of-age novel, and the mystery novel.
"It's a successful blend of many influences, which through her own genius becomes these novels."
Marah Gubar, an assistant professor who teaches children's literature at the University of Pittsburgh, is rereading the fourth and fifth books "in preparation for" the release of Half-Blood Prince. Gubar, who reviewed Harry Potter and theOrder of the Phoenix for NPR in 2003, sees that genius, too.
"If you read a real fantasy novel such as one written by Tolkien, well, you're not going to get to go live with elves. It's just a totally alien world; whereas the Potter books are an interesting mixture of the regular world and regular stuff with the fantasy."
Different kind of reality
Lifelike fantasy is also what author Steven Johnson sees behind Rowling's success.
"There's something really amazing and kind of intoxicating about authors who somehow manage to concoct an alternate universe that's fully rendered and lifelike and different from ours," says Johnson, who wrote the just-released Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter.
"The rise of the gaming culture is something that's made this even more pronounced," he says. "Players really respond to games in which a universe is lovingly created. When someone comes along and builds them with words instead of images, there's an immediate connection."
And that can bring out the kid in all of us.
"I can't pretend to speak for all children," Nel says, "but there is, of course, the secret wish that you are special, that you are different, that you are destined for more than an ordinary life - and Harry and his friends are. Harry grows up put-upon and oppressed, and what child hasn't felt oppressed by his parents at some point?
"And Harry is eventually liberated. He gets into a different world where he is really important and where he can develop his talents. It's a difficult world. It's not without adversities, challenges and danger. But he's special. Not everybody gets to go to Hogwarts."
A universal connection
Bandyopadhyay sees a connection between Potter and another orphan who famously discovers special powers: Star Wars' Luke Skywalker. "Harry and Luke Skywalker are two different sides of the same coin," Bandyopadhyay says. "They go through those experiences which we go through in our own lives - although not as often and not in such exaggerated ways as trying to destroy the Death Star or Lord Voldemort. But you can sort of see those elements in our own lives. It gives you something to hold on to - to know that people have been through similar experiences and they made it out alive."
Bandyopadhyay says that when he walked out of this summer's Star Wars, Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith, he turned to a friend and said: "Oh, so in 11 years, he's going to get a letter saying he's going off to wizard school. ... Oh, wait, wrong movie."
Wrong movie, but the same kinds of heroes.
"We never tire of a hero story," says Lana Whited, a professor of English and journalism at Ferrum College in Ferrum, Va., and editor of The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter: Perspectives on a Literary Phenomenon. "We are taken with those kinds of stories. They allow us to think we have a special destiny that nobody has told us about yet."