Harry Potter has changed the world.

You just can't say that about many books. You've got the Bible, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Copernicus wrote something or other. So did Newton and Malthus, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Charles Darwin.

But we live in different times: the UltraMaxiMedia-Age. We are slaves to the Next, ruled by videocracy. Taught by image; motivated by movement. Books are so old school. Reading is downright irrelevant. The world doesn't really change these days, anyway. It fractures and reassembles and moves from abnormality to new normality to post-whatever-was-in-fashion-as-this-sentence-was-being-written.

That said: J.K. Rowling's record-setting books -- number five, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," goes on sale today -- are altering our landscape. With more than 200 million copies in print worldwide, the books have been translated into 55 languages and are available in 200 countries. The literary influence is global.

The wee wizard Harry Potter has presto-chango-ed things: Those of us who may not have been readers are reading, children and adults. And reading, and thinking, more critically. The books have provoked discussions of: religion and community and, perhaps, ways to make the world a better place and ourselves better Muggles.

Even the Vatican approves. The books "help children understand the difference between good and evil," the Rev. Peter Fleetwood said at a news conference in Rome earlier this year.

Here's how Harry Potter is changing the world:

* Harry Potter has turned young boys into readers. From the get-go, reading experts knew that there was something special about Harry. Young girls are crazy about Harry, but miraculously, Rowling's stories also appeal to young boys, the population least likely to read.

The books push all the right buttons, says Michael W. Smith, a literacy education professor at Rutgers University. Smith and Jeffrey D. Wilhelm of Boise State University studied the literacy gap between boys and girls. Their findings resulted in the 2002 book " 'Reading Don't Fix No Chevys': Literacy in the Lives of Young Men."

"We tried to find out what boys were passionate about -- why they were passionate about what they were passionate about -- and we related that to literacy," Smith says.

When a reader finds that passion in reading, Smith says, there is a flow experience. Such moments come when people feel competent in what they're doing, when there is an appropriate level of difficulty for them, when there are clear and immediate paybacks and when they're enjoying the activity itself and not waiting for the payoff.

Harry strums all those strings.

Boys traditionally are drawn to activities that have a social dimension, Smith says. He is talking about the characters Rowling has created. Boys like spending time in their company. That it's a series makes it easier over time for readers to get to know Harry and Hermione and Ron and the rest.

With Harry, there is still one more compelling aspect: the social currency that comes with reading the books. A new Potter volume is the talk of the middle school or the summer camp or the neighborhood playground. "Have you read it?" becomes the question du jour.

Boys like exportability in their books, Smith explains. "Texts that tend to be popular are ones that are easy to export into conversation."

Baseball box scores, for instance, and cool parts of books. " 'Harry Potter' has a lot of cool parts," Smith says.

Bridget Warren of Vertigo Books in College Park, says: "Some kids begin to read out of peer pressure. Everyone is talking about Harry Potter. They get enthralled. They want to know what their friends are talking about. They get sucked in."

The books are getting longer and longer. This one is nearly 900 pages. "This is a mammoth book," she says.

If Harry can pry young American boys away from video games and TV -- even for a few hours -- and put them under the life-changing spell of great storytelling, the world will spin truer.

The Harry Potter books are plot-driven, says Jim Trelease, author of "The Read-Aloud Handbook." "Kids will read long, long, long books if you give them something that gets them to turn the pages."

At Ice Hockey in Harlem, an after-school program run by the Literacy Assistance Center in New York, Executive Director Elyse Barbell Rudolph pulls the old bait-and-switch on boys. She lets them play a little hockey, but she also gives them Harry Potter books. "We find it's a great hook for getting kids to read," she says. "And for adults, too."

Which brings us to the next point.

* Harry Potter has turned people of all ages into readers. Last fall, a dozen or so members of the adult book club at the LaGrange Association Library in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., read the first Rowling book, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone."

Club member Candace Cowan, 54, adores the series. She has read all four and is atwitter over number five. "I'm a total fan," she says. "I really feel that the whole idea that there could be a school like this to learn magic -- and she fleshes it out so well -- is just so much fun. These kids are so smart, and they can figure things out so well."

Cowan says her daughter, who just graduated from college, and her daughter's boyfriend, "who isn't much of a reader -- usually just reads technical manuals," have enjoyed all the Harry Potter books.

According to an NPD Group survey in 2002, 18 percent of American adults said they had read at least one of the books. Sixty percent of all kids between 6 and 17 years old had read at least one book in the series. Some of the books, of course, were read by adults to kids.

The series is so popular among older readers in England that Rowling's British publisher, Bloomsbury, markets editions with more sophisticated covers to grown-ups.

In Fairfax County, more than 1,200 patrons have put their names on a waiting list for "Harry Potter" V.

"We're finding lots of readers for the books -- adults and children," says Lois Kirkpatrick of the Fairfax County Public Library. In response to the advance avalanche, the library system, which has 21 branches, has ordered 493 hardbacks of "Order of the Phoenix" and 53 audio versions.

Bookstores, too, have been battening down the hatches for the Harrycane. A Likely Story in Alexandria has planned three Potter parties for this weekend.

In College Park, Vertigo's Warren says that most customers are buying Potter books for younger folks. "But we have adults who read them, too," she says. "They put cloth covers on them and read them on the Metro."

* Harry Potter has turned America into a nation of literary and film critics. Arguably, more people, more different kinds of people and more people of different ages are reading the Harry Potter books than any other book in memory.

Millions of people have seen the two movies fashioned from the first two books -- "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets." Both movies are in the top 20 grossing films of all time. The first has grossed more than $317 million.

With readers of all ages becoming moviegoers of all ages, we are experiencing a rare cultural moment. People of all ages are comparing books to movies and, for the most part, the former are winning.

The British Broadcasting Co. asked kids if they liked the first movie. Of 52 responses, many said they did, but most said the book was better. "It wasn't a disappointment but the books are still better," responded 12-year-old Anne-Marie. And Clare, 10, wrote, "The Harry Potter movie was good but some parts were really boring and the books are better."

Lana Whited says: "I was neither disappointed nor really charmed by the movies. I thought they were okay." An English professor at Ferrum College in Ferrum, Va., Whited is also the editor of "The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter: Perspectives on a Literary Phenomenon," a collection of critical essays.

"Harry delivers his lines very melodramatically," she says of actor Daniel Radcliffe. "I think the movies tend to focus on the drama. John Williams's score intensifies the drama. For me there is a lot more in the books that is more important than the plot itself."

The language, Whited says, is more dynamic in the books: "the words Rowling makes up, the names she either invents or draws from other sources, the little details or events in one book that turn out to be important in a later book."

For instance, in the first book, Ron Weasley has a rat named Scabbers. At the end of the third book, Scabbers turns out to be an animagus, which is a person who can transform into an animal. Scabbers was Peter Pettigrew, who betrayed Harry's parents by telling the evil Voldemort where he could find them, which ultimately led to their deaths.

"I'm talking about the books with all kinds of people of all ages," Whited says. She's planning a conference in November for children and teenagers to discuss various aspects of Harry Potter. "They become little literary critics."

Rowling writes in the tradition of many authors, including C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, Whited says.

People are reading the Harry Potter books in an "analytical way," she says. "They're reading for more than just who are the characters and what the plot is. . . . The books are very rich. There is a lot there. That is part of the reason they appeal to readers on so many levels."

* Harry Potter has people talking about religion. Whether readers believe in God or magic or nothing at all, they are debating the religious aspects of Rowling's works.

Some people find goodness and mercy in the books; others only sin and Satan. Most detractors object to the books' celebration of witchcraft. There have been reports of: churches in New Mexico and Pennsylvania burning the books; local school officials in Arkansas and Michigan banning them; folks in other places, including South Carolina and Tennessee, trying to get them banned. Amazon.com offers a video titled "Harry Potter: Witchcraft Repackaged -- Making Evil Look Innocent." Preachers have railed; educators wailed.

For the past four years, according to Larra Clark of the American Library Association, the Harry Potter books have been at the very top of the list of those that people have tried to ban. It's extremely rare that books by the same author "would have that kind of prominence," Clark says.

On the other hand, reading expert Trelease says Harry Potter "is doing God's work." Rowling's books are energizing reticent readers and will "someday enable them to read the Bible," he says.

To Connie Neal, author of "What's a Christian to Do With Harry Potter?" and "The Gospel According to Harry Potter: Spirituality in the Stories of the World's Most Famous Seeker," all of this debate is healthy.

"It gets families talking about spiritual things," says Neal, who lives with her husband and three teenagers near Sacramento.

"Kids are curious about supernatural power," she says. "They're scared. They know there's good and evil."

The books have been banned and burned by people who don't see the good in them, she says. "If you want to look for witchcraft in this, I know you can find it. But I propose that if I read Harry Potter, looking for parallels to the Gospel, I can show you specific Bible parallels."

Sacrifice, for example. That is, she says, "a basic Gospel message." At one point in the story, Potter's mother jumps in front of the curse of death and dies in Harry's place. "That's what broke the curse," Neal says.

The books are "so full of biblical allusions and good potential moral lessons."

Neal believes that Rowling has given parents and children a way to talk about good and evil and the choices that must be made in life. The books are "filled with kids who want to be good."

She adds, "Harry and the kids in Gryffindor -- sometimes by making good choices, sometimes bad choices -- grow in goodness."

The books, she says, "have got us arguing about religion in good ways."

The books raise vital questions about censorship, such as "whether a small group can have a selective interpretation of a piece of literature and have the right to keep society from reading that literature?"

"We need to keep the dialogue going," she says. "Harry Potter is forcing us to do that."

Harry Potter has elevated the discussion. Harry Potter has touched us in subtle and societal ways. But Harry Potter has mostly had an everlasting effect on the interior world of the reader -- the avid devourer who juice-machines books to a pulp and the excruciatingly reluctant reader for whom words are as remote and mysterious as distant stars.

Neal says her 14-year-old son, Taylor, who began eagerly reading the Potter books when he was 10, jumped from a fifth-grade reading level to an eighth-grade level in three months. "That's when he started really reading on his own," she says. He went on to read all of the "Chronicles of Narnia" by C.S. Lewis and "Lord of the Rings" by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Taylor graduated from eighth grade this week. As he was saying goodbye to his English teacher, Neal says, he asked if she knew of a great summer book. He told her he had just finished reading "Jurassic Park" by Michael Crichton, and he was looking for something really good to read this summer.

After the new "Harry Potter," of course.

Harry Potter and his ever-expanding universe: A boy in Bristol, England, below, at the debut of the third book in 1999, and a girl in Bowie, left, at the release of the fourth in 2000. Above, a scene from the second movie with Rupert Grint, left, and Daniel Radcliffe as Harry.