While most books happily settle for overlooked existences – lazing snugly on their shelves, wrapped up in their cozy little dust jackets – six whimsical tales of a bespectacled magical orphan have recently opted for a slightly more glamorous life.

Angela Cesere

Indeed, the “Harry Potter” series is now a bestseller that has nearly outgrown its very medium, with the sixth book grossing more money when it debuted in July than the top movie at the box office. And it’s not just for kids anymore either. Grandparents, doctors, businessmen in suits – these days, everybody does “Potter.”

Nor does it end with the books. Series author J.K. Rowling, famously wealthier than the Queen of England, has made a fortune in the licensing and merchandising of her creation. Apart from three of the top-grossing films of all time (the fourth of which, in case you’ve been frying in the Fishbowl too long, opened this weekend to predictably gargantuan numbers), the “Potter” logo is stamped on everything from beach towels to jelly beans.

But while nobody’s arguing that “Harry Potter” isn’t getting the recognition it deserves, some might be wondering what it is exactly about the boy wizard that has the whole world so enthralled. At its heart, each “Potter” book is just a fancifully-written story with vividly realized characters, climactic battles at the end of every academic calendar and far too many subplots. But are these really the awesome foundations for a multimedia empire?

Well, the books are good. In fact, they’re very good. “Harry Potter” has the merits of being eminently readable and universally accessible. But so also was the other literary behemoth of the past few years: Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code,” a travel guide turned movie script with characters cut out of a Hollywood manual and word scramblers thrown in for the easily bored. While fans of the book would be quick and accurate to point out that a re-evaluation of the misogynistic history of the early church is timely and important, they’d probably be standing pretty much alone.

Because the point is that Brown’s page-turner (when every other page begins or ends a chapter, you do get through them pretty quickly), while proving immensely popular, has failed to make it into the everyday life of Americana. Perhaps a synergistic swell of enthusiasm upon the release of the forthcoming movie adaptation will push it all the way. For now though, “Potter” remains the book of our times.

And “Potter” popularity is due in large part to precisely that popularity itself. It’s normally just called hype, but it’s not always as hollow as it sounds. Enthusiasm for the movie breeds enthusiasm for the books breeds enthusiasm for, say, a Lego Hogwarts and a stuffed Hedwig. But for “Potter” and a few other franchises like “Spiderman” and “Star Wars,” the hype starts in the consumer rather than the marketing firm. The fever becomes cyclical; it’s a well-known phenomenon that helps explain why Natalie Portman has persistently appeared in your Happy Meal these past few years.

Most significantly, however, there’s been a breakthrough in the ultimate information medium that has enabled millions more to fuel the “Potter” frenzy. While 10 years ago the Internet might have been a tool for tech geeks with a modem, it’s now pretty much an assumed amenity of daily American life. The advent of blogging and fansite-ing have made feeding your obsession – or even mild interest – as easy as typing “Harry Potter” into Google.

The days are over when, to be a Trekkie, you had to live in the basement lovingly crafting the canonically correct Klingon suit. Being a geeky fan today is none of the effort and half the stigma, which means there’s a whole lot more of them out there. And with these interactive resources so easily at hand, “Harry Potter” has become just one more avenue for people to experience collective euphoria – that feeling of basking in the glory of something bigger than yourself, the feeling of sharing your own excitement with the swarming midnight crowds of red-and-gold-bedecked Potterphiles on opening night. Think of it as the self-feeding hysteria of a football crowd, only where the yard lines are chapters and the players aren’t legal yet.

 

-Andrade, at age 21, is still prey to the magical spell of Harry Potter. Jolly good. E-mail her at aandrade@umich.edu

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