True Sorcery

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By Joel Garreau
Sunday, July 10, 2005

I have been thinking foryears now that the era through which my 15-year-old daughter has been growing up has striking parallels to the early years of baby boomers like me. For her, the 1990s meant accepting the most magical change as utterly routine. First -- abracadabra! -- came the Internet and then the World Wide Web. Suddenly unseen wizards conjured up cell phones the size of candy bars, palm computers smaller than a paperback book, and music players not much bigger than credit cards. These, I realized, were all end-of-century echoes of my mid-century and its television, birth control and travel to the moon.

So I found myself looking for the muse of my daughter's generation, for its Bob Dylan -- the seer who would announce to this new generation that "the times they are a-changin.' " I expected some Brazilian troubadour to rocket to the top of the charts, spread worldwide by the Web without benefit of any retrograde music industry. But now it has occurred to me that the prophet of our children's era -- the One who would speak of new realities that elders fail to grasp and offer a moral code in the face of lightning change -- is here already, in tens of millions of books translated into more than 60 languages and carefully tucked away in bedrooms all over the globe: It's Harry Potter, modern Magus, harbinger of today's cultural revolution.

Look back: The sorcery of the '90s was touted as the biggest thing since the printing press, perhaps the biggest thing since fire. It has turned a walk through a dark house in the middle of the night into an easy navigation. Tiny lights mark the way in festive red or green, winking from microwaves and clocks, phones and televisions, music and video players, fax machines and laptops, smoke detectors and docking stations. Each signals a step toward the place where my daughter sits, surrounded by more computers than light bulbs.

Yet the decade otherwise was a snooze. The headlines spoke of little save peace, prosperity and Monica. It was the calmest era our society had seen since the golf, kitchen-apron and board-game years of the Eisenhower administration -- which of course were followed by the civilization-shaking '60s of which Dylan sang.

Perhaps that's just the way history works. Perhaps because culture and values change more slowly than technology, when upheaval finally does occur, it is of seismic proportions. In the Renaissance, the big deal was not telescopes; it was about realizing that the Earth is a minor planet orbiting an unexceptional star in an unfashionable part of the universe.

Similarly, the last 10 years haven't been simply about computers. We've arrived at a turning point where we are conjuring up all creation through genetics, robotics and nanotechnology. This moment is about what parents will do when offered the means to increase their child's SAT score by 200 points. It's about what athletes will do when encouraged by big-bucks leagues to put together medical pit crews. And what the aging will do when offered memory enhancers. It's about what happens as we perform magic with the most fundamental aspects of our identity.

Today's kids are processing these revolutionary times through their Dylan, the ringing anthem that is the story of Harry Potter. How else do we explain the way those books resonate with children, how they've tied up the book industry's printing capacity as publishers rushto release an unprecedented first run of 10.8 million copies of the U.S. edition of "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" later this week.

Come gather 'round people

Wherever you roam

And admit that the waters

Around you have grown

And accept it that soon


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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