As Lucy Kobbs turned the final page of the seventh and last book in the "Harry Potter" series, she took a pencil to the wall beside her bed and memorialized the end of an era: 7/22/07, 3:20 a.m.
"It's one of those books that will stick with me for life," said Kobbs, who started reading the first "Harry Potter" book when she was in sixth grade, about the same age as the bespectacled young wizard who grew up alongside her, and finished the last within a day of its release.
Now 23, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and working as a sales associate, Kobbs is part of the so-called "Generation Hex," kids who came of age with the series' release and even in adulthood find their reading habits shaped by J.K. Rowling's magic.
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Many are fantasy buffs, follow serials, have high standards for story. Many devour books, big ones, unfazed by 870-page tomes like "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix."
Suzanne Keen, English professor and interim dean at Washington and Lee University, said she was struck that the sophomores who took her seminar last fall on Charles Dickens were far more capable of dealing with his long material than the students who took the class five years earlier.
"They had in effect learned how to deal with very long fiction, multi-plot novels, large casts of characters, humorous satire," Keen said. She said other English professors have noticed similar improvements in students' abilities to handle Victor Hugo's work and William Makepeace Thackeray's "Vanity Fair."
Keen sees quantitative evidence of this shift in a large study by the Census Bureau and the National Endowment for the Arts, which in 2008 found a sharp reversal in the steady decline in adult literary reading. The improvement among 18- to 24-year-olds was particularly "startling," the study found, with 21 percent more literary readers than six years before. Though the study credits literacy programs, Keen wonders if the "Harry Potter" generation had entered the sample pool, a heartening sign even if all they're reading is young adult fantasy.
"A person who has a habit of immersion reading, I can work with that reader in a way to open them up to somewhat more difficult and challenging works of fiction," Keen said.
John Granger, an authority on Harry Potter as literature, said it's not just Gen Hex whose literary outlook has been transformed by Rowling. Hoping to re-create the Harry Potter experience, publishers have covered bookstore walls with serial fiction aiming to keep readers engaged with chosen-one characters in supernatural situations fighting to deliver the world from some evil.
"Harry Potter represents really a pivotal point in literacy and appreciation of literature that no one could have anticipated," said Granger, known as "The Hogwarts Professor" and author of "The Deathly Hallows Lectures." "We don't realize that we are all swimming in a Harry Potter ocean."
An ocean of more than 4,000 wand-wielding fans poured into the Chicago Hilton earlier this month for the massive Harry Potter convention LeakyCon, named after the Leaky Cauldron pub in the series that can only be seen by wizards. Undying love for Hogwarts met heady anticipation for Rowling's new novel, her first to target an adult audience.
"The Casual Vacancy," to be released Sept. 27, has been kept under tight wraps. The publisher released only a vague description about an election in a divided English town, stirring excitement and curiosity among fans who wonder how Rowling's style will translate to real-world settings.
"I'm nervous, I worry about what other people are going to say," said Michael Crowley, 22, who starts law school this fall at Boston University, exuding a loving protectiveness of Rowling that abounds among her fans. "You don't speak bad about the queen, and you don't speak bad about J.K.R."
What J.K.R — or J.K., or Jo, or Goddess Rowling, as the most diehard Potterheads call her — did to earn such literary loyalty ranges from the subtle to the seismic, from sparking imagination to molding book choices to being the reason some kids read at all.
Kobbs, who likes to pick up '80s and '90s fantasy series she finds at thrift stores, said she reads all books through the lens of "Harry Potter," examining how well they execute Rowling's devices.
Grace Smith, who started listening to Harry Potter as books on tape during family road trips when she was 7, said the series raised her standards.
"I don't have any patience for things that aren't thought out," said Smith, 19, a biology major at Oakland University in Michigan, who on this occasion was dressed as Professor Dumbledore's pet phoenix Fawkes, though somewhat more elegant in a long red evening gown with cardboard wings, tail feathers and a beak on her head.
Since the series ended, Smith has immersed herself in Wally Lamb's fiction because she appreciates "popular books that are really well-written."
Others credit Rowling with life-altering transformations.
"I got into university because of Harry Potter, I graduated from high school with a 3.5 GPA because of Harry Potter, I became the protector of bullied kids because of Harry Potter," said Liz Marsden, 21, who attended Oak Park and River Forest High School and is now studying musical theater at San Jose State University.
Marsden, wearing hot pink hair and a red leather tailcoat, with a wand strapped to her tricep, was dressed as Tonks, a crime-fighting Auror. She said when she entered third grade she had dyslexia, attention deficit disorder and read at a first-grade level because, she said, "I didn't think any authors deserved my attention."
That changed when her teacher started to read "Harry Potter" to the class, and Marsden fell in love with the first line, which she still has memorized, as well as the characters, who were realistic and flawed so that "it wasn't like the people we were falling in love with were somebody we couldn't be." She lost her school friends but found community in a fandom that didn't mind if you were sorted (often by online quiz) into Gryffindor, Slytherin, Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw, she said, rattling off the Hogwarts houses while nearby, someone took a swig from a miniature bottle of kahlua.
Since the series ended, Marsden has found herself drawn to books about people forced to be heroes before they are ready, such as Suzanne Collins' "The Hunger Games" and "Ender's Game," by Orson Scott Card. She has also written a 400-page novel, which she hopes to publish, that began as fan fiction.
"The Hunger Games" has captured many readers finding their way in a post-Potter world, rivaled only perhaps by the shrieks that erupt when anyone mentions "Dr. Who."
As they waited for the start of a workshop, a girl wearing a Hogwarts sweater breathlessly announced that Evanna Lynch, who played Luna Lovegood in the "Harry Potter" movies, had been spotted dressed as "Hunger Games" heroine Katniss, prompting 19-year-old Sarah Jasiak, an English major at Illinois Wesleyan University, to flail her arms in the air before collapsing on the floor in joy.
Stephanie Merrill, 21, who said she "didn't read anything for, like, four years" after the last "Harry Potter" book, for fear that nothing could compare, finally re-entered literature through "The Hunger Games," relieved to discover the dystopian battles were very different from the wizarding wars and that she could, in fact, read again.
George R.R. Martin's "A Game of Thrones" has been another landing pad for Potter fans.
"I'm really into complete worlds," said Crowley, the soon-to-be law student, who is reading the series.
Others are delving into classics, fantasy and otherwise.
Marielle Maxwell, 18, said "Harry Potter," which her dad started reading to her when she was 6, was her introduction to books, and because the series evolved and matured as it progressed it gave her a taste of different literary styles. Maxwell, who this year graduated from high school in New York, said she's been reading "Sherlock Holmes" and "Dracula," and she recently started a book club for which the first book will be "Pride and Prejudice."
Kelsey Mater, 21, who is studying geographic information systems and information technology at Central Michigan University, recently read J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" series and George Orwell's "1984." She would like to find a fantasy or dystopian book with twentysomethings as protagonists but says it has proved elusive.
"Everyone seems to be in their teens or over 30," Mater said. "So I tend to go to the teenage books."
Many now-grown-up Potterheads gravitate toward the young adult section, because it's "a very open world," said Leiram Rivera Soto, 23, an English teacher at Chicago's Sullivan High School. She counts among her favorites Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse/True Blood series, "The Year the Horses Came" by Mary Mackey and Arthurian classic "The Mists of Avalon" by Marion Zimmer Bradley.
Fiona Moubray, 19, who is studying musical theater and international business at Western Kentucky University, said the complex themes and thoughtful characters in many YA books have made them choice post-Potter reading picks. Favorites include the "Divergent" series by Veronica Roth, "Mortal Instruments" by Cassandra Clare, and best of all, John Green's "The Fault in Our Stars," about cancer-stricken teens figuring out how to live when they know they're going to die.
"You cry like a baby," Moubray said.
Green, winner of the Printz Award and the Chicago Tribune Young Adult Literary Prize, is beloved in the Potter universe, harnessing the Internet and YouTube to create a community of "Nerdfighters" who are united not just by their reading preferences but their world view.
"Many of us are looking to John as the next great storyteller," said Andrew Slack, co-founder of the Harry Potter Alliance, an activism group that draws on the values from the Potter books to promote civic engagement. Calling Harry Potter readers "the equality generation" (he recently launched equalityftw.org to raise money for equality causes), Slack's clarion call is that "fantasy is not an escape from our world, but an invitation to go deeper into it."
Some fans have done just that.
Nate Rossi, 25, credits "Harry Potter" for instilling in him the values of dignity and generosity that led him to the join the Peace Corps, stationed in Cameroon. His friend Billy Latta, 22, said "Harry Potter" spurred his imagination, which is why he's starting at the Disney College Program this fall in hopes of one day being a creative director at Disney.
Their literary tastes diverged along the way — Rossi opts for Jonathan Franzen, Latta for "Percy Jackson" — but books have remained central to both their lives.
"Reading is the important thing, not what you read," Holly Black, author of the "A Modern Faerie Tale" series and co-author of "The Spiderwick Chronicles," said during a workshop about what constitutes a bad book. The consensus among the panelists was that there's no such thing.
"For me, reading trash led me to writing trash, which led me to writing," said Margaret Stohl, co-author of the "Beautiful Creatures" series. "It goes back to the pitbull argument. Is there such a thing as a bad book, or just a bad book owner?"
Potterheads, for all their voracious reading and egalitarian values, might make one exception.
"Harry Potter fans hate 'Twilight,' as a rule," laughed Granger, "The Hogwarts Professor." "It's like our turn to be snobs."
Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz is a Tribune lifestyle reporter.
Trading butter beer for coffee
The midnight release parties that drew thousands of costumed "Harry Potter" fans to bookstores nationwide will give way to much lighter fanfare for the Sept. 27 release of "The Casual Vacancy," J.K. Rowling's first novel targeted at an adult audience.
The heavily guarded book goes on sale at 6 a.m.; booksellers have had to sign agreements promising they won't sell or reveal it a moment earlier, dashing party plans that may not have been all that festive anyway, since no one really knows what the book is about.
Unabridged Bookstore in Lakeview plans to open at 6 a.m. on release day, four hours before its usual opening time, and have a breakfast party with pastries — "probably scones because that's rather British," said Stefan Moorehead, manager and buyer at Unabridged.
"There is a segment that's excited for anything that she does, so we want to help those people," Moorehead said. "And since so many of her original fans are now adults and in the workforce, and they have to go to work at 9 a.m., we're hoping to get people on their way to work."
Anderson's Bookshop also plans to hold breakfast parties at its Naperville and Downer's Grove locations, starting at 8 a.m. instead of their usual 9 a.m. opening time, with bagels and coffee.
Despite the mystery of the story, the anticipation of a new Rowling writing is great.
"I've ordered significantly more of it than any book since the last 'Harry Potter,'" said Linda Bubon, co-owner of Women and Children First in Andersonville. Her store is not throwing a party or opening early, but she is offering 25 percent off of pre-sales of the book until Sept. 1.
Other stores, including Anderson's Bookshop and The Book Table in Oak Park, plan to offer discounts off the $35 list price as well.
— A.E.R.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times