For Gen-Yers, last Potter book marks the end of an era

With the release of the final Harry Potter book on July 21, youth ponder the role the boy wizard will play in defining their generation.

For Brent Lomas and thousands of other college students, the official end of childhood comes Friday night at midnight.

Once he's read "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," "I have to go out into the world and say goodbye," says the college senior, only half-joking. "It's the kind of thing that defines your childhood. I spent my teen years always being excited about the next book, and now that's over.... It's like letting go of a friend or a family member."

J.K. Rowling might have created the boy wizard, but the fans who were contemporaries of Harry, Ron, and Hermione while the series was written say they own the books in a way that no other generation ever will. "He belongs to us," says Andrea Farrer, a senior at Hackett Catholic Central High School in Kalamazoo. "Harry grew up with us." "It's the defining thing of our decade. That's what our generation will be remembered for," says her friend Kaili Doud, who plans to dress up as Winky, the house elf, for the final midnight party at Barnes and Noble here in Kalamazoo. While it would be going too far to call them the "Harry Potter generation," a number of Gen-Y fans think that they and their peers will be tied to Harry in cultural memory the same way that boomers have the Beatles and Woodstock and Gen-Xers have "Star Wars." And frankly, some of them say, they could do a lot worse.

"When you think about what kids look at these days to teach them about the world – Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie – I think it's very interesting that this fantasy character and fantasy series have been able to teach us morals and lessons about the world," says Mr. Lomas, who cites among those lessons acceptance of others and the importance of looking within yourself for strength. The senior at the University of Southern California ran his own website from eighth grade until, Lomas says, he "had to apply to college and become a real person." "I hope people identify us with Harry Potter over Bratz dolls and celebrity obsession. I hope they think of us embracing a creative idea."

With 325 million copies sold so far, plus movies, video games, websites, tribute bands, and a planned theme park, "embracing" is putting it mildly. Indeed, "rabid fandom" may be too tame a term. Certainly, adolescents have always at least partly identified themselves by the pop culture they consume – whether it's Elvis or emo (sad, mopey rock music, usually sung by pale young men with droopy bangs) – and sought a fellowship of like-minded fans. "That's what our age group does," shrugs Kalamazoo high school senior Katie McAtee, who belongs to the Facebook group "Please Don't Bother Me on July 21" – the date of the book's release.

The Internet obviously has made building connections much easier (and given people a way to maintain excitement between each book), but technology alone can't explain the sheer size of Pottermania. So, of course, experts have stepped into the breach.

"Harry's the herald who offers a moral code in times of great upheaval that vibrates to this generation the way the early [Bob] Dylan still echoes in the lives of boomers," argued Joel Garreau in an opinion article in The Washington Post in 2005, just prior to the publication of Book 6. "He is the prophet and precursor of a new generation."

Other analysts think Potter as generational messiah might be overstating things a tad. "I think they're reaching," says Anne Alton, professor of English at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant who taught a course on "Harry Potter" last semester. "That's not to negate how much fun Harry Potter has been."

Not surprisingly, the importance Gen Yers place on Harry as a lasting icon tends to follow in lock step with how many times they've reread the series. Certainly, students who have grown up in evangelical households do not look to Hogwarts for moral guidance. And despite the media frenzy in anticipation of Book 7, not every US college student spent her youth in thrall to Rowling's spell.

"It's not a cultural touchstone [for me]," says Jen Siegel, who's studying accounting at the State University of New York in Albany. Given recent world events such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the war in Iraq, and global warming, she's not sure Harry Potter will make it into the history books as a defining event of a generation. "There's a lot going on," she says.

Even some fans think that's a lot of weight to put on a series that they say basically boils down to the archetypal showdown of good versus evil.

"I wouldn't say it has affected my worldview, but it's an amazingly catchy story," says Matt Trevithick, a senior at Boston University and an early adopter whose mom ordered the first book from England a year before it was published in the US.

"You grow with the characters," says Ainsley Brockmeyer, a sociology major from Norwood, Mass., who can recite precisely how many times she's read each book and credits the series with helping her develop a love of reading as a teen. While she loves the way the books can transport her to the world of Hogwarts, she and others say that going through the trials of adolescence at the same time that Harry did created a deeper connection with the characters.

"Having the books written before them, watching the series as it has unfolded – that's added a lot to that connection: Not only don't I know what's going to come next, but NO ONE knows what's going to come next," says Professor Alton. To her, the years of shared anticipation and speculation are what makes the phenomenon unique to this generation of readers, rather than the thematic material. "Readers coming to this in five or 10 years' time – or even next year – will not be able to have the same experience."

Seth Shamban is inclined to agree. "The books might be just as meaningful to [new generations of children], but it won't be such a cultural experience for them," says the Stanford University senior. He argues that his generation has struggled with apathy. "If we can show that we really cared about something, that we allowed ourselves to unify around one thing ... why not [Harry Potter]? For a children's book, it's really tied into contemporary, grown-up problems. It's about alienation and identity and how we cope with great tragedy. It speaks to ... terrorism and all these things going on."

Alton counters that the "The Lord of the Rings" swarmed college campuses in the 1960s in a similar way, and says that, until the final chapter has been read, the verdict is still out on what Potter's lasting legacy will be.

As for Lomas, he plans to stretch out his last hours with his childhood companion: "Instead of reading it all in one night, maybe I'll savor it."

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