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Wild about 'Harry'

This children's book casts a spell over grown-ups too

Kathleen Sweeney was bored with her book club's selection for the January meeting. Hard as she tried, she couldn't seem to muddle through ``The Puttermesser Papers,'' a cerebral collection of stories by Cynthia Ozick.

Finally, desperate to read ``something that grabbed me,'' the 37-year-old Sweeney reached for a children's book she'd bought for her 11-year-old nephew, a novel called ``Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone,'' by J. K. Rowling (Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine).

The book snared her and wouldn't let her go. ``I couldn't put it down and stayed up until 2 a.m. to finish it,'' says the Somerville business analyst. ``It's better than most adult fiction.''

Turns out a lot of adults share Sweeney's taste in literature. ``Harry Potter'' (in Britain, where the book was first published, the title is ``Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone''), Rowling's engrossing first novel about witchcraft and wizardry, may have been written for 8-to 12-year-olds, but it's developed a secondary following among grown-ups. Since it was published in the United States last September (it came out in the United Kingdom in 1997), adult readers have been so enthusiastic about ``Harry Potter'' that the book has found its way to The New York Times bestseller list 12 weeks running.

``Harry Potter,'' which is the first title in a planned seven-part series, is in first place on the Independent Booksellers List, ahead of even John Grisham's ``The Testament.'' The British publisher has also released the book with a more grown-up-looking jacket to capitalize on the adult market.

The novel is a fantasy about an orphan named Harry who spends the first 10 years of his life in a gloomy cupboard under the stairs in the home of his vile uncle and aunt, Mr. and Mrs. Dursley. The Dursleys are Muggles (everyday people who dwell in the human world), and they aren't exactly pleased that Harry is not. (He's a wizard, though he doesn't yet know it himself.)

Harry's fortunes change, however, when he receives an invitation to attend the exclusive Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, a kind of sorcery prep school steeped in tradition where the list of school supplies includes ``1 cauldron (pewter, standard size 2)'' and ``an owl OR a cat OR a toad.''

It is at Hogwarts that Harry faces his limitations and fears (``I'll bet I'm the worst in the class,'' he confides miserably to a friend ), and earns his first broomstick, a sporty Nimbus Two Thousand. Here he meets his first intellectual snob (``I'm particularly interested in Transfiguration, you know,'' she sniffs one day, annoying the other students); he gets a taste of British class consciousness when a fellow student cautions him that at Hogwarts ``some wizarding families are much better than others'' -- and ultimately he faces a terrifying villain.

Judging from customer comments on the Amazon.com Web site, children and adults are equally enchanted by the book's characters and story line. Comments range from a girl in Massachusetts who shares that ``me and all my friends all love this book'' to the adult reader in Hawaii who writes ``Not since reading Madeleine L'Engle's `A Wrinkle in Time' as a kid in fifth grade have I ever been so entranced by a book.''

The book's adult readers range from parents who were turned on to it by their kids, to others, like Katherine French of Cambridge, who has two young daughters but ``bought it primarily for myself.'' The book was recommended to French by a friend after she complained she hadn't read a novel with a strong plot in months.

``I was so longing for good fiction,'' says French, director of Sherman and 808 galleries at Boston University. ``And with this one, the writing, the rhythm of it, the beat, magically draw you in where you think: This is so well written. It reminds me of the best of E. B. White, like `Charlotte's Web.' ''

No lesser a Muggle than Caroline Seitz -- wife of the former US ambassador in London -- has gone wild over the book. When the book's British publisher, Bloomsbury, held a children's party in January to launch the paperback version of the second book in the Harry Potter series, Seitz, who still lives in London, could not keep herself away. Seitz, 56, and her 49-year-old friend Victoria Legge-Bourke -- the former social attache of the British Embassy in Washington -- swept into the party in full witch regalia, sporting stuffed white owls on their shoulders attached with Velcro strips, and gold and silver sprinkles on their faces.

``And we carried brooms and wands,'' said Seitz, in a telephone interview from London, noting that ``Harry Potter'' so delighted her that she ``promptly bought a dozen copies for friends and family -- aged 20 to 80 -- in the United States.

``I'm sure I love the book for the same reasons all adults do,'' says Seitz. ``You know, a friend of mine said to me, with a noticeable sigh: `Life is so daily.' It's the reason this book is really appealing. It is grounded in everyday reality, yet puts an amazing spin of enchantment over daily life.''

Indeed, ``Harry Potter'' has been so much in demand by adults in England, where it won the British National Book Award, that Bloomsbury has issued its special adult edition.

The idea was prompted ``by anecdotal evidence of pin-striped businessmen sitting on the tube reading the book behind their newspaper,'' says Rosamund de la Hey, children's sales and marketing manager for Bloomsbury, in a telephone interview. ``And we were getting letters from kids saying, `Dad's pinched my book!' ''

Locally, the Cambridge children's bookstore ``Curious George Goes to Wordsworth'' has been importing the grown-up version, which sells out quickly. ``There are people who do not necessarily want to be seen reading a children's book in public,'' explained Catherine Donaghy, a children's specialist at the shop.

Adult versions have also come out in Germany and Italy, says Christopher Little, Rowling's literary and film agent, in an interview from London. (Warner Bros. has purchased the rights to the first two books in the series.) Says Little: ``I've never, never, never seen anything like this before. Everyone is clamoring for it.''

The author herself acknowledges that she didn't expect the book to be so hugely popular among adults, but ``having said that, without being arrogant, it isn't hugely surprising.''

``I wrote `Harry' for me, says Rowling, in a telephone interview from her home in Edinburgh. ``I never fantasized about what a 9-year-old would like. It's my humor, not an adulterated version of my humor.''

Of course, a shrewd marketing strategy on the part of Scholastic hasn't hurt the book's sales figures either. The book's publicity literature prominently features the fact that the author has had an almost Potteresque rags-to-riches rise to fame. ``J. K. Rowling was a struggling single mother when she wrote the beginnings of `Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone' on scraps of paper at a local cafe,'' a press release says.

The marketing tactics bemuse Rowling, 33, who has already completed the third book in the series. ``To be honest, it was taken out of my hands,'' she says. ``It is all true. I was as poor as you can get. And I did write in cafes, to get out of the house, and I only had money for one cup of coffee at a time. This is not a complaint; I'm not ashamed of having gone through that. I'm quite proud of it. But I don't want to dwell on it. The book really saved my sanity.''

Still, the strategy has obviously worked. ``I love the idea of somebody writing a book on napkins,'' says local fan Sweeney. ``It's a romantic image. It gives you hope that anyone can fit that kind of creativity into their lives, under fairly oppressive circumstances.''

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