Harry Potter and the Magical Numbers

Heard anything about that new Harry Potter book? Oh yeah, I forgot, that’s all we’ve heard about for three months. Quick, name another book published in the last three months. Whoops, time’s up, we all lose.

Roughly 8.5 million copies of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” were sold in the first 24 hours, which means an impressive 292 million Americans didn’t buy a copy.

The common wisdom is that it’s a good thing because children are reading. OK, fine. But wouldn’t the world be a better place if we could get more adults to read?

“Oh,” you say. “You’re playing with statistics. Babies and young children don’t buy books, and a lot of people wouldn’t be interested in Harry Potter.” OK. Let’s say half the population wasn’t in the market for the new Harry Potter book. That means an impressive 142 million Americans didn’t buy it. Let’s say two people read each copy, a huge improvement – 134 million Americans didn’t read it.



Any way you cut it, only 10 percent of the reading public read the best-selling book of all time. Now imagine a regular best seller, a book that only sells a million copies, meaning a whopping 299 million Americans didn’t buy it.

You can get on the New York Times best-seller list if your book sells roughly 15,000 copies in a week. Beyonce, Justin Timberlake, Jay-Z and many other music stars regularly sell 100,000 CDs a week. At roughly the same price as the discount price you’d pay for the kind of book you’d find in a grocery store.

Reporters make a big deal about how many copies Harry Potter has sold, about the long lines at the bookstores, about how Harry Potter books have kids reading again. I say, prove it.

There are long lines around the bookstores because there are so few bookstores left. Look in the yellow pages and see how many bookstores there are in your town. Now look and see how many beauty parlors there are. How many tattoo parlors? How many nail salons? How many Gaps, how many Gap Kids, how many jewelry stores selling gold chains? Yeah, reading’s back. Millions of kids have actually read the instructions on how to hook up the latest video-game console into their computer.

My small-town library splurged and got one copy of the new Harry Potter book. I thought they were crazy. Get 20 copies. We want to get kids in the library, so they can see that it’s not some spooky place where you can’t talk but a playground for the mind. For a month there was a life-size cutout of Harry Potter standing in the corner of the Young Adult section that counted down the days until the book appeared.

Finally, the big, publicity-filled day arrived. The new Harry Potter was on the shelf. After it sat there for three days, untouched, I checked it out. It is now back in the library, gathering dust again.

“Why go to the library?” one youngster asked me. “Mom bought me a copy at the grocery store.”

Ah, yes, that temple of learning, the grocery store.

“Was it squeezed in between ‘Treasure Island’ and ‘Doctor Dolittle’?” I asked.

“What’re those?”

“Other great books for kids.”

“Never heard of ‘em. The store only sells one book. Harry Potter. Is ‘Treasure Island’ a Harry Potter book? I don’t think so, I’ve read them all.”

“How about Tom Swift or the Hardy Boys?”

“I don’t know who they are, Mister. Besides, my Mom says I can’t join any gangs until I’m 16.”

“I’m talking about books, all the books you voracious young readers are going to start reading now that you’ve finished Harry Potter.”

“Is a voracious a dinosaur?”

“Apparently, he is.”

Jim Mullen is the author of “It Takes a Village Idiot: Complicating the Simple Life” and “Baby’s First Tattoo.” You can reach him at jim_mullen@myway.com.

Copyright 2007, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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