J.K. Rowling Speaks! Oh, and Two Other Writers Too

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It's not every night that you see novelists treated like rock stars. But for two performances at New York's Radio City Music Hall this week, a capacity crowd of 6,000 greeted Stephen King, John Irving and J. K. Rowling with the sort of fervor normally reserved for heroes of pop culture. The three writers gave readings from their works — and then took questions — in a benefit for Doctors Without Borders and Haven, a charity that King established that aids artists and writers who need medical assistance.

King and Irving went first, King telling with relish a story his fans might recognize from the movie Stand By Me — a whole town vomiting during a pie-eating contest. Irving read a passage from his novel A Prayer for Owen Meany with wonderful verve and humor. But the men knew who the main event was. Rowling didn't just have the best shoes — gold strappy sandals — she also had the most devoted fans. After reading a passage from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, her most recent book — the sixth in the seven-book series — she took questions from the audience, the longest from Salman Rushdie, ostensibly on behalf of his son. For Potter fans, it seemed, it was the questions that counted, since they were a chance to get Rowling to share some detail of what will happen as the series winds up. Rowling didn't give much away — "She seemed very apologetic that she couldn't answer a lot of the questions," said my daughter Gina, 15 — but she did at least make one thing clear: for those who are still in any doubt, Dumbledore really is dead.

It's a remarkable thing, the Potter phenomenon. In introducing Rowling, actress Kathy Bates gave the impression that the distinguishing thing about the Potter books is that they have made readers of those who would otherwise have their nose buried in a screen of some kind. But that doesn't seem quite right. Harry Potter appeals to plenty of children — and adults — who love reading books of all kinds. The stories have that crucial ability to be fantastic and believable at the same time, the characters are flesh and blood, and the plotting rich and unexpected. Rowling deserves her fame and wealth.

What I hadn't appreciated before was how much a heroine she is to her readers; Gina, a devoted Potter fan, had been had counting the days to the reading, and it was plainly the chance to see Rowling in the flesh that had attracted her to the event. I don't think I ever felt that way about Arthur Ransome, the wonderful British children's author of the 1930s and 1940s whose books I once devoured with the same passion Gina now displays. But then, the whole way in which one consumes and appreciates children's literature has changed since I was a child. Gina spent much of the day before the readings at a podcast in a New York bookstore organized by The Leaky Cauldron, one of the key Potter websites. New media — the Internet — has enabled a true community to be built around old media artifacts — the books.

Still, in the end, it's the words that count. Gina thought the readings were wonderful, of course, but so did Roxana, 17, her elder sister, who likes to point out that when it comes to Potter "I'm not obsessive." Both of them loved Irving — Roxana had seen the movie of The Cider House Rules but not read the book — and I hope will try out his work soon. All in all, quite a night; when the Rockettes next need a night off, maybe Radio City should give Jonathan Safran Foer and Zadie Smith a call.