Book review: Harry, a History
AMERICANS embrace religion more fervently than modern Europeans and have invented several sects, cults, and prophets of their own. Go to the Leaky Cauldron website and you can't help feel JK Rowling's powerful imagination has begun to spawn a belief system on its own.
In between articles on the latest Harry Potter films and its stars, a wizard rock festival, and how to brew your own Butterbeer, the site invites you to register for LeakyCon 2009. It's a Harry Potter gathering promising to bring friends together from round the world for fun, fellowship and "to practise the greatest lessons of Harry Potter: bravery, nobility, acceptance, and above all, love".
Melissa Anelli, an energetic young freelance journalist from New York, is the award-winning webmistress of the Leaky Cauldron. Billed as "the most trusted name in Potter", it is Rowling's own favourite fan site, but repeatedly stresses its independence from her, her publishers, and the Warner Bros film studio.
Now Ms Anelli has written a book of her own. Harry, a History, is billed as the "inside story" of the boy wizard and his fans. In an introduction to the book, Rowling describes how she at first tried to keep as "ignorant as possible" about Potter hysteria. In 2002, for the first time, she Googled Harry Potter, and was "utterly unprepared for what I found". There were websites with tens of thousands of visitors, message boards, editorials, rolling news, fan art, fan fiction, quotes of the day, predictions and wild theories. Rowling praises Ms Anelli for trying to be "fair and honest and impartial".
The book has insights into how the Rowling phenomenon may have been a product of its time, interwoven with the explosion in the use of internet and Amazon.com. In "perhaps the biggest and best publication tool" Rowling's UK publisher, Bloomsbury, came up with the idea of a simultaneous nationwide launch for the third book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in 1999: at 3:45pm on 8 July, just after British schools finished. TV footage of queues round the block created more queues and turned Potter into a craze.
The first known fan site on the internet, the Unofficial Harry Potter Fan Club, was started in 1997, by a teenager from Nevada. Others, such as MuggleNet.com, came in 1999, and the Leaky Cauldron in June 2000. Social networks and blogs also blossomed, along with "fan-fiction", fans' own stories involving Rowling's characters or their own, and fan art, their own pictures. After initial tussles, according to this book, Rowling and film-makers went from trying to curb these sites to working with and encouraging those like The Leaky Cauldron.
Ms Anelli writes of being well and truly converted to the Potter books after reading Prisoner of Azkaban. She found herself "loving Harry himself" as he struggles with the memory and legacy of his dead parents, "the forlorn orphan who fights a mighty enemy with kid-sized fists, just because he should".
The book captures the flavour of Pottermania, where fans' e-mails fly like the owls' messages with the latest breathless news of the writer and her progeny. But it makes the mistake of treating Potter news as "real news" rather than the business of entertainment and the marketing of children's fiction. It fails to examine how the works really inspired children to read.
Nor does it quite answer what sites like Ms Anelli's will do now the books, and soon the films, end the series of seven. There will be a new generation of fans, presumably, that head eagerly for the web.