The boy who helped us live

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  • She’s the best: In this file photo, Sara Franklin gets her hands on “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”

    She’s the best: In this file photo, Sara Franklin gets her hands on “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”

Harry Potter, it seems, has worked a kind of practical magic on his worldwide readership.

It’s been seven years since the last volume in the bestselling literary series of all time, the estimable Harry Potter & The Deathly Hollows, appeared and author J.K. Rowling’s young readers have now grown into young adults.

When the books about the bespectacled boy wizard and his friends were published between 1997 and 2007, parents throughout the world were, of course, delighted: rare indeed was the creative sorcery powerful enough to compel adolescents to turn off their Xboxes and Gameboys, to mute their iPods, and to immerse themselves in a book — let alone seven increasingly complex and adult books.

The books were every bit as popular in Bermuda as they were elsewhere. Launch dates turned into impromptu street parties. Enthusiastic young fans (and their sometimes less than enthusiastic parents) formed long lines outside the doors of the Bermuda Book Store which opened promptly at 12.01 a.m. on the official release days.

The youngsters who came of age when the Harry Potter books were flying off the bookstore shelves at a rapid-fire rate no mystical incantation could hope to replicate have longsince put away childish things. But, not, it turns out, the influence of Harry Potter.

Facebook’s data specialists recently analysed results of a viral survey which asked users to name the books which have most deeply affected them. J.K. Rowling’s series about the Boy Who Lived appeared on more than 21 percent of the 130,000 lists, including dozens compiled by Bermuda residents.

Among Millennials, those born between 1980 and 2000, Harry Potter handily beat out such standards as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and even the Bible.

Stephen King, himself no slouch when it comes to intuitively identifying readers’ needs, hopes and phobias and tailoring his material accordingly, expertly distilled the enduring appeal of Rowling’s work. He spoke to the underlying themes the books’ championed compared to the synthetic values found in so much of the mass-produced contemporary literature aimed at young people: “Harry Potter is about confronting fears, finding inner strength and doing what is right in the face of adversity. The Twilight series is about how important it is to have a boyfriend.”

The Harry Potter characters did not stay in states of permanent arrested development like so many protagonists of children’s books; they did not remain as unaging and as unchanging as Peter Pan.

Rather they grew up from book to book, just as their readers did. They matured, developed, discovered new, sometimes troubling aspects of themselves and the world around them. The plots and subject matter of the Rowling books began to whimsically mirror very real adolescent concerns, interests and worries as the series progressed.

No one wants to overly anatomise the allure of Harry Potter, to unweave the rainbow by subjecting it to too much dull philosophy and critical thought. Because the simple reality is young people have always craved magic above all else.

Whether it’s found in the tales of the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen or the African stories about Anansi the Spider or the thousand and one Arabian fables recounted by Scheherazade, magic has long been the major recurrent theme in children’s literature: the ability to miraculously right wrongs, to redress injustice and to light the darkness by imbuing the powerless (and who is more powerless and vulnerable than a child?) with an otherworldly source of power. But strip away the fantastical elements and the Potter novels are compelling and extraordinarily well-written morality tales based on ethics and virtues as old as the human spirit.

New research conducted by University of Vermont professor Anthony Gierzynski suggests the moral lessons of the books have helped to mould the values and priorities of Millennials who grew up with Harry Potter and his classmates at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

“Harry Potter was one of the great cultural events of our generation’s time,” said one student cited in his study. The series “helped raise the children of our generation by instilling in them some of the basic moral conceptions of right and wrong.”

The lessons Mr. Gierzynski and his associates identified include diversity, inclusiveness and acceptance, political tolerance and equality. Through surveys American college students, Mr. Gierzynski and his researchers found those who grew up reading Harry Potter to be more tolerant, “(and )less authoritarian, to be more opposed to the use of violence and torture, to be less cynical, and to evince a higher level of political efficacy. They are also more liberal …”

They have also continued to read, and read prodigiously, in an age when Twitter seems to be reducing all human communications to 140-character-or-less bursts of small talk.

“Of course there are many factors that shape our attitudes toward others: the media, our parents and peers, religious beliefs,” The Scientific American recently said of Harry Potter’s ongoing cultural significance. “But (recent work by Mr. Gierzynski and European academics) supports earlier research suggesting that reading novels as a child — implying literary engagement with life’s social, cultural and psychological complexities — can have a positive impact on personality development and social skills.”

Mr. Gierzynski agrees. “Harry Potter got a lot of people in the Millennial generation to read,” he told the New York Times this week. “That fact itself shows a powerful impact, helps to verify the findings more than anything.”

And that may well prove to be the Boy Who Lived’s greatest magic feat of all.

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Published Sep 20, 2014 at 8:00 am (Updated Sep 22, 2014 at 5:12 pm)

The boy who helped us live

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