Wild About Harry

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PHOTO-ILLUSTRATION FOR TIME BY JACQUES BARBEY

First of all, for the uninitiated, here are three surefire, clinically tested signs that you are a Muggle:

1) You spot a boy or girl whose forehead is emblazoned with a paste-on tattoo in the shape of a purple lightning bolt and have no idea what you are seeing.

2) You still believe reading is a lost art, especially among the young, and books have been rendered obsolete in our electronic, hot-wired age.

3) You don't know what a Muggle is.

Fortunately, such ignorance has become almost ridiculously easy to remedy. Simply place yourself in the vicinity of a child, just about any child, anywhere, and say the magic words Harry Potter. If, for instance, you utter this charm to Anna Hinkley, 9, a third-grader in Santa Monica, Calif., here is what you will learn: "What happens in the first book, Harry discovers that he's a wizard, and he's going to a school called Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. At the station he meets a boy named Ron, who's also going to Hogwarts. And on the train, they meet a girl named Hermione..." Given enough time, Anna will tell you the entire plot of a 309-page novel called Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, which she has read, she confides, "seven or eight times."

And that book is only the opening chapter of a story that has become one of the most bizarre and surreal in the annals of publishing. Muggles, i.e., those who are unaware of all the wizardry afoot in the world around them, will need a brief recap if they're ever to catch up.

So, in the beginning, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone [or Philosopher's Stone, as it was originally named], written by a previously unknown author named J. (for Joanne) K. Rowling, appeared in Britain in June 1997 as a juvenile-fiction title. Abracadabra! it careered to the top of the adult best-seller lists. The same eerie thing happened when the book was published September 1998 in the U.S.

Next came Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, which proved itself, both in Britain and the U.S., as salesworthy as its predecessor. So far, the first two Harry Potter books have sold almost 2 million copies in Britain and more than 5 million in the U.S. The novels have been translated into 28 languages, including Icelandic and Serbo-Croatian. The best-seller chart in last Sunday's New York Times Book Review ranks The Sorcerer's Stone, in its 38th week on the list, as the No. 1-selling hardback novel and The Chamber of Secrets, in its 13th week, as No. 3.

But this arrangement will change almost immediately because the story keeps on developing. Last Wednesday Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic Press; 435 pages; $19.95) finally went on sale in the U.S., exactly two months after its publication in Britain. Those U.S. readers who had not managed to obtain a copy of the British edition, chiefly through Internet orders, swamped bookstores nationwide. From El Centro, Calif., to Littleton, N.H., many stores opened for business at 12 a.m.; others offered customers tea and crumpets or steep initial discounts. Barbara Babbit Kaufman, president and founder of the Chapter 11 bookstore chain in Atlanta, reports selling more Harry Potter books in the first three hours of business than Tom Wolfe's novel A Man in Full, sold during its first day of availability last November. "Tom Wolfe's was set in Atlanta," she says, "so it was the hottest book we'd ever had." Until, that is, the new Harry Potter hit the shelves.

Not everyone welcomed the prospect of a third best-selling Rowling novel in the U.S. Says David Rosenthal, publisher of Simon & Schuster: "There is a big controversy stirring over whether Harry Potter should be on the New York Times bestseller list. There are a number of publishers--I don't happen to be among them, actually, but I've got calls about this--who are thinking about banding together to beg the New York Times not to include the Harry Potter books on the regular fiction best-selling list, since they now take up two slots and will soon take up a third."

The argument that a list of regular best sellers should exclude children's best sellers will strike most people as preposterous. But then the whole Harry Potter hubbub seems equally outlandish--the proliferating pages that fans are posting almost daily on the Web, the word-of-mouth testimonials from parents marveling that their nonreading children (even boys!) are tearing through the Potter books and begging for more, the confessions of a growing number of adults not so young that they find these young-adult books irresistible. And the arrival of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban will only add more fuel to the Potter conflagration and prompt anew the question that is baffling many non-Harry publishers and readers alike: What on earth is going on here?

If there were an easy answer, nearly every other writer on earth would by now be beavering away at imitations of Rowling's formula for success, and the world would be teeming with best sellers about prepubescent wizards attending bizarre boarding schools somewhere in the north of Britain. And, in fact, it is not particularly hard to figure out the rules governing the Harry Potter books. Place appealing characters in interesting but perilous situations and leave the outcome in doubt for as long as possible. Nothing new here, nothing that storytellers as far back as Homer did not grasp and gainfully employ. But, as devoted Harry Potter fans have learned, knowing a magic charm is not the same thing as performing magic. Rowling's secret is as simple and mysterious as her uncanny ability to nourish the human hunger for enchantment: she knows how to feed the desire not just to hear or read a story but to live it as well.

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