fb-pixel

15 ways Harry Potter has changed culture since the first book was published 20 years ago

Bob Bird/Associated Press, file

Twenty years ago Monday, on June 26, 1997, Bloomsbury Children’s Books published a book by an unknown single mother from Edinburgh — a manuscript that had been previously rejected by eight other publishers for being too long — the first in what the author hoped would be a series of seven books. With a payment of 2,500 pounds and a bit of advice — don’t quit your day job, you’ll never make a living writing for children — Joanne K. Rowling’s publishers set her on the path to becoming richer than the Queen of England and struck gold with one of the best-loved and most influential books of the last 100 years: “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.” (The book got a slightly different title, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” when it was released in the US the following year.) This book and the six others that followed have shaped a generation and changed our culture in innumerable ways — both good and bad. Here are 15 of its biggest impacts:

1. The series taught adults that, when it comes to literature, age ain’t nothing but a number. Whether you started reading the series at an age-appropriate 12 only to wait in line at 22 for the joy of the final installment or, like my dad, you decided to indulge your overzealous daughter by reading the copy she hid in your carry-on bag on a work trip and fell in love, the Harry Potter series took adults reading books written for kids and teenagers from being something mildly embarrassing to being an everyday occurrence.

Advertisement



2. It taught publishers that, as long as the books are GOOD, kids will read them, no matter how long they are, or how many you write. Before “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” a 700-page children’s book was unheard of. Now, finding one under 300 pages feels like a miracle — especially if it does not have three to six sequels.

3. That led to an EXPLOSION of popularity for children’s and young adult literature, especially series. Did you know that the Harry Potter series is the reason that The New York Times Bestseller List has a separate list for children’s books? In July 2000, in its first major change to the lists’ format in 16 years, the paper decided a children’s list was necessary after the first three Harry Potter books held the top three positions on The New York Times’ Bestseller List for more than a year — no new adult books could compete!

Advertisement



4. It made book culture into pop culture. Find someone who was working at one of Harvard Square’s bookstores in July 2007 and ask them about the Harry Potter Party thrown in the square to celebrate the release of the final book in the series. Before your eyes, you’ll see friendly nerds transform into hardened veterans with thousand yard stares, recalling the Altamont-esque chaos that accompanied the midnight bookselling that year. Not since Americans crowded the docks eager for news of Dickens’s Little Nell had a new book been such a cultural event, but since that time, countless others have followed the same pattern.

5. It made literary culture into pop culture. More than just supporting midnight parties and mass-produced paraphernalia that had typically been limited to comic book characters and sports teams, though, the gap between installments in the Harry Potter series and the books’ almost universal popularity fostered a culture of constant re-reading and, as a result, close analytical engagement with the text. As fans poured over “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” for the sixth time, desperate to discern the meaning of the prophecy it revealed, they may have thought they were just trying to solve Joanne’s mystery. But, in fact, they were developing close-reading skills that would typically have been limited to PhD-level study. Think of that the next time a millennial on Twitter points out the implicit meaning in what you thought was an innocuous sentence — it might just be Jo’s fault.

Advertisement



6. Turned fan culture into mainstream culture. In addition to academics, this close, obsessive engagement with a beloved object had typically been limited only to the most intense and fringe-est of nerds. But because Harry Potter’s rise coincided with the rise of the Internet, the kids who obsessed about it never had to do it alone — other obsessive fans were just a chat room away. And, it turns out, that if you can access fan culture easily, you will. While 20 years ago, knowing the Live Long and Prosper hand signal from “Star Trek” would have marked you as the hard-corest of nerds, today, failing to know the qualities associated with different Hogwarts houses makes you look comically out-of-the-loop.

7. Made fanfiction into the No. 1 writers’ workshop for aspiring authors — especially female ones. Even more important than its effect on fan culture in general, Harry Potter and, specifically, the three-year gap between the fourth and fifth installments in the series known in fandom as “the three-year summer” led to an absolute explosion in fanfiction writing. This environment produced a slew of current YA writers — most famously, Cassandra Clare of the Mortal Instruments series — but has also created a stable and fertile online writers’ workshop where new writers, frequently female, can hone their craft.

Advertisement



8. Indirectly anointed John Green as the King of Young Adult Fiction. In January 2007, John Green, then a critically-beloved but popularly unknown young adult author, decided to start a daily video blog with his brother Hank. For six months, they chugged along, watched by a growing audience of hundreds of devoted fans. Then Hank wrote a great, goofy song about his eagerness for the final Harry Potter book, it went viral, and overnight Vlogbrothers went from a project watched by hundreds to a project watched by thousands — growing and growing until, eventually, it gave John Green the platform he needed to turn his excellent book “The Fault in Our Stars” from a critical darling to a chart-busting, genre-smashing success. So while you may think Green “saved” young adult literature, his success is actually Joanne all the way down.

9. Gave millennials an essential framework for philanthropic and political engagement. These days, you can’t turn around online without bumping into a new take about what Harry Potter can teach us about political resistance. From Hermione’s initially-maligned-but-ultimately-vindicated personal crusades on behalf of non-Wizard magical creatures like house elves to The Battle of Hogwarts, the books offered a primer to an unformed generation on how to push back against the dominant culture and what it looks like to take a principled stand against tyranny. You may be tired of seeing President Trump compared to Voldemort, but you cannot deny that the fictional example set by the books has had a substantial impact on our political discourse.

Advertisement



10. Created a generation of unabashedly age-agnostic culture consumers. If you, like me, were a 22-year-old camp counselor in July 2007, it was perfectly normal for every person at your camp, from the most ambitious 7-year-olds to the 36-year-old who delivered your bottled water, to be reading the exact same book you were: “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.” So while normally we’d have been putting away childish things, my generation felt free to like what we liked, regardless of whom it was intended for. I’d argue that you can draw a line from that directly to the current number of 32-year-old women whose favorite artist is Carly Rae Jepsen or whose favorite tattoo is of Garnet from the Cartoon Network’s animated show “Steven Universe.”

11. Invented spoiler culture. You know what else happens when a hotly anticipated book is being consumed simultaneously by an unprecedentedly wide range of readers? Some people finish it before others do and CARELESS LIPS SINK SHIPS by revealing important plot details before they’ve been discovered organically. While there were twists before Harry Potter, its universal popularity made “spoiling” a plot point into the first degree social misdemeanor it’s considered today.

12. Undid years of John Hughesian social programing by making nerds root for a jock. Say what you will about Harry Potter’s status as an outsider and orphan — when you get down to brass tacks, at Hogwarts, he is a rich, handsome sports star who eschews his homework and cheats in order to make sure he’s got more time on the Quidditch pitch. He acts first and thinks later. If he were in a John Hughes movie, he wouldn’t be Duckie — he’d be Blaine. And yet Duckies throughout America cheered him on for seven books! Truly, this counts as a minor social revolution.

13. Taught media conglomerates that there is always more juice in the lemon. When Warner Bros. realized that they could arbitrarily turn one long book — “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” — into two long movies, our media landscape changed forever. Why invest in original work when you can turn a 128-page fictional textbook into three movies? Why settle for an epilogue when you can have an entire West End play? Harry Potter taught Hollywood its favorite new lesson: If people love your intellectual property enough, they’ll keep buying forever, no matter how much the return on enjoyment diminishes.

14. Taught authors that they never need to die, if they’d rather not. In modern literary analysis, there is a famous axiom: The author is dead. It’s meant to remind students that it does not matter what the author, living or otherwise, intended when they composed the work you’re analyzing — as soon as print is on the page, it’s yours to interpret as you will. Unless, of course, you’re J.K. Rowling, author of the world’s most popular series, and you feel like letting everyone know that you intended for Dumbledore to be gay the whole time. Then you can keep annotating your works until the sun expands and consumes the Earth, and BuzzFeed will thank you for the easy headlines.

15. Began my illustrious and surely game-changing career as a Media Personality. . . . as being interviewed by this very paper about the release of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” was my first print appearance in a major national paper. I’m sure, 10 years from now, someone will be writing listicles about MY impact on culture, too.


Margaret Willison can be reached at willisonm@gmail.com