In New York's Time Square the world renowned giant video screen counted down the seconds to midnight. But it wasn't New Year's Eve. It wasn't even close. It was, in fact, last Saturday night, July 16. So what was the occasion? What was so important to warrant this kind of attention? Did Israel and Palestine finally kiss and make up? Did someone find a cure for cancer? No, it was all about the midnight release of new book.
So, was this the long awaited translation of the dead sea scrolls, revealing secrets about Jesus that the Catholic church has successfully kept from the public since the scrolls were discovered over 20 years ago? No, it was a children's book. A book called Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince. A book about wizards and magic and kids. A book no different from hundreds of other children's books about wizards and magic and kids.
So what made this book different from all those others? What was it that prompted tens of thousands of people - young and old - to line up outside bookstores all over the world in the middle of the night. In London a queue of 2500 people stretched for more than a mile! What was it that made this book so special that it sold more copies more quickly than any other book in history: 8.9 million copies in 24 hours - and that was just in the U.S. and Britain!
There is no doubt that it is a wonderfully imaginative and well written piece of fantasy, as were the previous five books in the series. And there is no doubt that the author, J.K. Rowling, deserves all the fame and fortune being heaped upon her. She is the classic rags to riches Cinderella heroine, writing since the age of six, finally receiving her just rewards. And her heart's in the right place as well. Now a billionaire, last year she was the second largest charity donator (in proportion to income) in all of Britain.
But as likable and deserving as Ms. Rowling is, what about all the other likable and deserving authors of children's books? What about C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien, and Lewis Carroll, and Robert Jordan, and Anna Sewell, and the hundreds of others, many of whom are arguably even more talented and deserving than Ms. Rowling? What made her book The One?
What made her book so desirable and popular was the same thing that made normally placid housewives trample each other into the ground to buy the last Cabbage Patch Doll. It's the same thing that made The Spice Girls one of the biggest selling musical(sic?) groups in history. And it's the same thing that makes all those trendy urbanites go out and buy big, stupid, dangerous, gas guzzling, polluting S.U.V.'s, when the closest they get to off-road four-wheeling is accidentally clipping a corner of their own front lawn, backing out of the driveway.
What is it that has so much power over people, to make them believe with all the heart and soul and disposable income they can muster, that they really NEED this Thing, that their lives will be forever empty and pointless and forlorn without It - whatever It may be? Well, I'll tell you what it is. It is the most powerful force in the world today: Mass Marketing. It is a force fuelled by greed, that exploits people's sheep-like gullibility. It is a force capable of great evil, but it is also a force that quite by accident, can produce great good, and fortunately, in the case of the Harry Potter books, great good has indeed been achieved.
Why? Because it's got kids reading. It's got them away from their T.V.'s and video games, and got them reading books. The greed of a few publishers and marketing executives has inadvertently got kids using their brains again. Millions of kids, all over the world. And believe me, folks, that is a very good thing. In case you haven't noticed, the world we've come to know and love is not in the best of shape. And anything that gets the world's children - its only hope - off the prozac and actually reading books, is a very, very good thing indeed.