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The Literary Magic of Harry Potter

Harry Potter turned 20 this summer, and the anniversary has been celebrated around the world – with good reason. But does J.K. Rowling's boy wizard have the intergenerational staying power needed to become a classic?

PRINCETON – This summer, at literary festivals and bookstores around the world, readers celebrated the 20-year anniversary of the debut of the first book in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (re-titled Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the United States) – and with good reason. Since the young wizard’s first appearance on June 26, 1997, the “Boy Who Lived” has become the “Icon Who Endures.”

Over the last two decades, the Harry Potter series has expanded to include seven novels, with a total of 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 Harry Potter-themed toys and merchandise garnering another $7 billion. For those of a certain age and literary mindset, it is difficult to recall a day when global audiences weren’t 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 fall 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 seventeenth century to the present, the course invites students to consider how and why particular best-selling 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.

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