Reading parties, midnight bookstore openings, and hysterical anticipation: JK Rowling’s books taught us what cultural devotion could look like before the advent of on-demand services. According to Jessie Thompson, we’ll never see anything like it again. It was merely a book when I first read it. There were no lines at all. There will be no wand-waving grown adults. You won’t find a hugely popular movie series here. The first Harry Potter novel was published 25 years ago this weekend, after being rejected by 12 publishers. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is rumored to have been given the go-ahead by Bloomsbury CEO Nigel Newton because his daughter had enjoyed reading the manuscript. After 500 million copies sold, she’s undoubtedly entitled to a share of the profits.
We don’t know what’s going to be the next cultural sensation. The only certainty is that it will never happen again. The Harry Potter phenomenon was the last of its kind in the digital era. From a period before Netflix binge-watching and memes, before Amazon Prime, and before Netflix Prime Instant. When I was growing up, one of our favorite pastimes was sitting about and waiting. It’s astounding to believe that a significant number of those 500 million people went to a bookstore to purchase their books in our online, on-demand culture.
In truth, those trips to the bookstore stick with me the most. By the fourth book, bookstores were opening at 1 a.m. to accommodate the frenzied appetites of readers eager to get their hands on the new release. They never happened before Harry Potter, and they haven’t happened since. There has never been a book like it, but now you don’t have to leave your house to get what you need.
Harry Potter is a story about three friends who had to attend school (annoying) to learn how to be wizards (more worthwhile). Because he is so horrible that no one can even speak his name, they attempt to murder him (a necessary task, if melodramatic behavior). There is also an owl. That sense of occasion has stayed with me since I was an 11-year-old girl in Maidstone, and I can’t remember much of what I was reading due to it all.
When I was a kid, the first Potter books came out. Except that, initially, I had no desire to engage with them in any way. The first thing I’d say to an adult who suggested I read the Harry Potter series is, “Ugh, I’m not a geek!” I would frown. I’d take a stroll. The posters of Lee from Blue that I’ve collected over the years would be a good distraction.
While visiting a friend’s house, I was unwittingly caught in the crossfire. After that, we were forced to watch a clip from the first film. The sparkling music began. I snorted, huffed, and glared at the wall. Then my willpower began to waver. It appeared on the screen that a gigantic man with a magical umbrella had appeared on the net. His aunt and uncle had lied to him. He was telling a young boy. That he was a wizard was widely accepted. They were also planning on doing some shopping for wizarding implements like wands! It was over for me. Stubborn, obstinate me had to concede that Harry Potter was, in fact, outstanding. I’d finished the first three volumes by the weekend and was desperate for the next one.
Books became an unexpected friend throughout my adolescence, as they were for millions of others of my generation. I was 16 when the final book was published. My first-ever boyfriend dumped me over MSN the day before the book was released in bookstores. Only one option was open to me: enabling my father to accompany me to WHSmith at midnight to get my hands on a copy of Deathly Hallows. For the next 24 hours, I read till my eyes hurt, ignoring my impending death. How are the books concluded? I have no recollection of who I am.
Some of the Pottermania excitement now feels like a throwback to the past. During JK Rowling’s editorial sessions, manuscripts were passed around in Sainsbury’s bags, then placed in a vault. Criticism of the series by Anthony Holden appeared in The Observer in 2000. The best part is when Jerry Hall and Imogen Stubbs, his fellow judges on a children’s fiction contest, inform him that their children love Harry Potter. My reaction: “‘You should be studying Beowulf!’ I snapped, annoyed.””) After that, Holden’s Observer postbag was overflowing with messages from young people proving him incorrect. There are many others who disagree with you, even though I’m just 10,” wrote one. J.K. Rowling was selected as one of Britain’s national treasures in 2011, with Paul McCartney and David Attenborough. Her legacy may be in question now because of her penchant for expressing unpopular viewpoints and making changes to her characters after the fact.
Young men began filming themselves driving by lines of excited admirers at bookshops, shouting spoilers at them in the final book, published in 2007. They cry, “Snape kills Dumbledore!” The scene goes dark. Angrily, someone shouts, “You scumbag,” in response. As soon as they leave the car, a second fan begins to chase after them. It was unsurpassed in its intensity and fanaticism.
That does not mean that our cultural obsessions have lost their appeal. To this day, Game of Thrones memes makes me laugh out loud. Even before I attended the play, I could already hear the lyrics to Hamilton in my head. Love Island is pointless if you don’t follow the tweets. This time around, it’s louder, more boisterous, and a little less subtle. That is the last pre-Internet occurrence we’ll ever witness again, and it makes me nostalgic for Potter. It wasn’t only the anticipation, the trek to the bookshop, or the absence of noise that made the experience so special. It was a more intimate and peaceful encounter. There are no screens in this room. There will be no spoilers here (bitches aside). Online, the author does not post any updates. It had the potential to have been read by 500 million people. But the majority of the time, you were alone with a book.