At what point does an acquaintance become a friend? Is it when you first take the risk of making a fondly mocking joke? When you discover the places and people you didn’t know you had in common? Or is it when you stumble across a shared passion?
If you’re anything like me, it might be the moment when the Harry Potter books enter the conversation for the first time. I remember bonding with fellow prospective students at university interviews over our shared trick of retreating into a Harry Potter book to calm our nerves.
I have watched the awkwardness of meeting potential flatmates melt away thanks to our shared enthusiasm for the Harry Potter studio tour, and even had boys sneak up to my bedroom under the guise of wanting to “listen to a Harry Potter audiobook together”. I first felt at home at the New Statesman because of the unashamedly geeky love for the series that unites a solid 90 per cent of the online team (we’re mostly in our mid-twenties).
Sometimes, this shared passion can seem inevitable. I’m never surprised to meet someone my age who can answer the painfully difficult trivia questions I’ve memorised for Potter-centric conversations, often without batting an eyelid, or is armed and ready to debate whether Professor Snape is a misunderstood hero or an entitled misogynist. Is this, then, what it means to be part of the often-referenced “Harry Potter generation”?
J K Rowling’s first book about the boy wizard, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was first published on 26 June 1997. A YouGov survey of more than 2,000 adults conducted to mark the 20th anniversary found that, in Britain, 81 per cent of 18-to-24-year-olds are fans of the Harry Potter books, films or both. So, too, are 68 per cent of those between 25 and 34. It seems that if you’re a young person in the UK, you’re far more likely to be a Potter fan than not.
It’s a remarkable indication of the series’ unprecedented popularity, but what does the existence of this Harry Potter generation mean for society? Over the years, there have been all sorts of investigations into the ways in which Harry Potter has shaped us, for better or worse. In 2014, a study found that young children who read Harry Potter were likely to be more empathetic and less likely to be prejudiced than their peers.
Last autumn, a study published by the American Political Science Association’s journal Political Science and Politics made headlines for concluding that Harry Potter fans were more likely to dislike Donald Trump – even when this was adjusted for other factors such as age. The Spectator recently speculated that to be a fan of Harry Potter is to “ignore the complexity of reality”, arguing that the series is the reason why “young people are often so childish in their politics, why they want to divide the world between tolerant progressives and wicked reactionaries”.
It’s very hard to get an accurate sense of how Harry Potter has changed people’s principles. It is difficult to distinguish between correlation and causation. Has Harry Potter really shaped millennial beliefs? Or does the series, with its messages of equality and love triumphing over fear, resonate with young, left-leaning people because they feel instinctively more optimistic about these issues?
The right has always seen the left as naive and lacking nuance – no spectacled boy wizard will ever change that. Harry Potter fans are not, in my experience, united in their opinions about the ethics of the series. They argue fiercely over whether Rowling’s wizarding world, with its surveillance state, single newspaper and government-dominated society, is a utopia or a dystopia. And the world of Harry Potter is full of morally complicated characters. Readers will never come to a consensus on whether Snape, Slughorn, Malfoy and even Dumbledore are wholly good or bad people.
Yet there is one particular area in which we can see that Harry Potter did change a generation: its reading habits. Research by the Federation of Children’s Book Groups in 2005 found that 84 per cent of teachers had noticed the difference that Harry Potter made to their students’ reading abilities, and 73 per cent said they were surprised at how many of their students were able to read the books.
Rowling’s series, with its unusually long books, is widely credited with making children’s books fatter. Between 1996 and 2016, the average story aimed at readers aged between eight and 12 more than doubled, from 140 pages to 290. While the increase in numbers of young people reading caused by Harry Potter can’t, in the long term, balance out the general decline in reading for pleasure that happens as most teenagers approach adulthood, there can be no doubt that the series spurred many children to connect with a story for the first time. If the Harry Potter generation reads more, that can be no bad thing.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Harry Potter is its continued popularity. I worked in a bookshop in my late teens and early twenties, and we sold several copies to fresh waves of children every day. Thanks to new editions and a new generation of readers, sales of the original Harry Potter series doubled in 2015-16. And even though the original series has finished, the excitement over the Harry Potter franchise continues as Rowling writes more plays and films, and theme parks introduce new Potter attractions.
More than 20 years on, the series’ popularity is showing no signs of dimming. Someone who was 12 years old when Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was first published would be 32 now, but there are five-year-olds becoming Harry Potter fans every day. That makes the label “Harry Potter generation” so elastic that it can stretch into meaninglessness.
I am grateful that Harry Potter helped me find kindred spirits among my peers at university, parties and work. But perhaps the most magical thing about the series is that it didn’t just touch a generation: its scope is so much wider than that.
This article appears in the 28 Jun 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague