The Harry Potter books have been phenomenally successful. CNN reports, “The last installment of the Harry Potter series sold a record-breaking 11.5 million copies in the U.S. in the first 10 days on sale… To date, more than 350 million copies of the seven books in the Harry Potter series have been sold worldwide.”
And Potter is very much an international phenomenon. The Guardian reports:
Publisher Bloomsbury [of Britain] revealed [on September 18, 2007] that its English-language version of the boy wizard’s final tale has sold as many copies overseas as in the UK. In Germany alone [one million] copies were sold in the last month. Pre-orders in China were more than 200% higher than those of the previous book…. [T]he untranslated Harry Potters have seen huge demand from impatient fans who want the books as soon as they come out.
The books have sold so well in part because they are very well written fantasy stories with richly drawn characters. Even though Harry and his friends can do amazing things, it’s easy to imagine living in their world while reading the books. But part of the reason the books have sold so well is that Rowling presents a strong moral message of courage and strong character that children are obviously hungry for.
Rowling’s sales figures are indeed impressive. By way of comparison, Ayn Rand wrote some of the most influential novels of the 20th Century. Yet, according to a biography from 1995, “Every book by Ayn Rand published in her lifetime is still in print, and hundreds of thousands of copies are sold each year, so far totalling more than twenty million.” Even assuming robust sales since then, Rand’s books have sold less than ten percent the numbers of Rowling’s books. (No doubt sales of Atlas Shrugged will get a boost when and if the movie ever reaches the screen.)
But numbers don’t mean that much. What will be the lasting cultural influence of, for example, The Da Vinci Code? The reason that Rand’s books have had such influence is that they present in dramatic form philosophic ideas of profound personal importance to the reader. The Harry Potter books present some important ideas, but they are not as profound, as original, or as integrated into the story.
The main reason that Rowling has had and will continue to have such profound cultural influence is that she is reaching millions of children when they are first exploring ideas and first thinking about moral choices. Harry and his best friends belong to the school house of Gryffindor, the house of the brave, and Rowling presents an inspiring image of moral courage. (I’ll have more to say about Rowling’s themes at a later time.)
But perhaps the best thing about Rowling’s books is that they have encouraged children to grapple with a complex story and difficult themes. The children who have graduated from those books will be prepared to read — and eager to find — other great and inspiring works of literature, such as Rand’s novels.