Well, if you do read the thread that I linked to yesterday, I think you can come up with a couple of main conclusions, one to do with the content of the books and the other about the creation of an ‘imagined community’ of readers:
1. Readers love books that give them lots of puzzles to work on – both little geeky puzzles and big ‘where is it all going’ puzzles. Clearly, the HP books score highly on both those counts, and that in particular is why adults are reading them as well as children, I think. Never mind if the writing is bad; that’s not what counts. This has nothing to do with ‘literary criticism’ (or professional book reviewing). It’s about becoming a detective, about creating theories in the spaces left (intentionally or otherwise) by the writer, because there is a very simple and deep joy to be had from being able to go: Yes!! I knew it! Beat you!
But you don’t want to get too much right: there must be unexpected twists, unresolved questions, large and small ambiguities so that you can start again in anticipation of the next book.* It’s a competition between reader and writer, but it’s crucial that there must never be a clear winner.
2. And readers love it even better when they can congregate to discuss, dissect and argue over those puzzles. They join forces to try to outwit the author (though I think what they usually do is to multiply the possible questions and answers to dizzying confusion). In the process, they make a community of detectives.
And Harry Potter emerged at just the right time to extend the established forums for book geeks into the world of the Internet. Now, in case you hadn’t gathered, I have never read a word of a Harry Potter book (except quotes). But I have participated in that kind of thing once, for a while with the Dorothy Dunnett networks, first in newsletters (my first ever published words were a letter to a DD fanzine…) and later, briefly, online. (But it was just too huge and time-consuming – Dunnett wrote millions of words and was a superb spinner of webs and mysteries who attracted a lot of rather obsessive and highly articulate fans – and I had to give up before I got addicted.)
The excitement of sharing theories that previously had been locked away in my head with other people, and learning new ideas that had never occurred to me, too – that was a heady experience. And I could feel the same sort of excitement reading the HP discussion; even more so, since we’re talking about fans who have got hold of and finished this book within 24 hours of its publication.
You could say the Internet helps to make that sort of rapid reading en masse possible in the first place (how many people pre-ordered their book online rather than from bookshops, I wonder?); you could even argue that it makes it newly imperative to do so, since there is another competition going on, isn’t there, the race to be able to join the haves who can gleefully jump into this discussion and leave behind the have-nots (the muggles, of course) who can’t.** But certainly, the blogs and the discussion lists facilitate this vast virtual community-building process, and they make it instant. No need to wait 3 months for the next magazine, you can get out there and talk and puzzle and argue to your heart’s content RIGHT NOW.
Would JK Rowling be anything like this big without the Internet? I don’t think so. But here’s another question, since there’s only one book left to go: I wonder who might be the next JK Rowling? What will be the next Harry Potter phenomenon? I think there will have to be one before long. Because it’s what readers will want.
*Which is why, incidentally, I think the final instalment tends to be an anticlimax. Too much has to be tied up; and you know that the competition has really come to an end. You and the rest of the readers can puzzle some more, but the author has withdrawn, and without her, it’s only half the game. Put it another way: in the end, the author always wins, and that’s what makes it go wrong.
**This is why I’m writing about the readers instead: it’s just about compensation for feeling left out. I mean, who wants to be a muggle?