I have been thinking for years 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 rush to 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
You'll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin'
Then you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'.
-- Bob Dylan, 1964
Our children have used magic wands all their lives, raising and lowering the volume on the story boxes that they watch, controlling the narratives. It's uncanny, the way they can intuit what technology wants.
Didn't used to be this way. Did any fathers ask their daughters to fix the Model-T, the way we now routinely hand a balky cell phone to our offspring? The relationship between who learns and who teaches, which has been stable for millennia, has been upturned: "You looked at the previous generation to learn how to live yourself. That's no longer possible," explains the anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson. "Today you're finding 12-year-olds teaching their grandmothers how to use computers so they can exchange e-mails."
Each day, our children wake up in a world that will have changed by sundown. They take incomprehensible change for granted and have absorbed the wisdom of the author Arthur C. Clarke: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." And Harry Potter addresses the outstanding question that we and our children encounter as we face such unprecedented change. It is the problem of the moral use of our powers. As Bateson says: "Who teaches what's right is an issue in politics, it's an issue in religion, it's an issue in business."
Hogwarts, the school of witchcraft and wizardry that Harry and his cohort attend, cannot ensure that people will use their powers wisely, responsibly and for the common good. According to the literary critic Alan Jacobs, writing in the journal First Things, the educational quandary for the school's revered headmaster, Albus Dumbledore, "is how to train students not just in the 'technology' of magic, but also in the moral discernment necessary to avoid the continual reproduction of the few great Dark Lords like Voldemort and their multitudinous followers."
Indeed, Harry is tortured by the question of why the Sorting Hat, which searches the souls of incoming students to determine which house or faction they belong in, takes so long to group him with the brave and true of Gryffindor, rather than putting him in Slytherin among the careerists, the manipulators, the power-hungry and the just plain nasty, where he could achieve greatness.
" 'It only put me in Gryffindor,' said Harry in a defeated voice, 'because I asked not to go in Slytherin.' 'Exactly,' said Dumbledore, beaming once more. 'Which makes you very different'" from the supremely evil wizard Voldemort who threatens all of civilization. " 'It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.' Harry sat motionless in his chair, stunned."
Harry realizes for the first time, according to Jacobs, that his confusion has been wrongheaded from the start. He has been asking the question "Who am I at heart?" when he needed to be asking the question "What should I do in order to become what I should be?"
The technologies that our children will develop offer powers exponentially greater than those of Dumbledore and Voldemort. Yet through these books, our children are learning very old lessons about love and community and how to be human in the face of overwhelming magic. And by providing a means of coping with the inexplicable and magical, the Harry Potter books provide a code for coping with real life. Our children recognize their own technological age in this magical place.
What our children absorb most of all is character -- the humanity that overcomes the mysterious. The more mature Harry and his friends become, the more explicitly that point is made. In the last volume, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," Harry's intellectually acute friend Hermione tells him that the time has come for them to seize the day, defending against the dark arts directly:
" 'It's about preparing ourselves . . . for what's out there,' " she says. " 'We've gone past the stage where we can just learn things out of books. . . . We need a teacher, a proper one, who can show us.'
" 'Who then?' said Harry, frowning at her.
" 'Isn't it obvious?' she said. 'I'm talking about you, Harry.' "
Harry protests his lack of fitness, but Hermione asks who else should confront the enormous task: "Look what you've done."
This is the turning point of the entire series. Hermione and their third musketeer, Ron, make that abundantly clear by recapping Harry's astounding triumphs over Voldemort's evil in the previous four books.
But Harry by now is apoplectic. " 'You don't know what it's like! You -- neither of you -- you've never had to face him, have you! . . . There's nothing between you and dying except your own -- your own brain or guts or whatever -- . . . They've never taught us that in their classes, what it's like to deal with things like that -- and you two sit there acting like I'm a clever little boy to be standing here, alive.' "
" 'Harry,' " Hermione responds, speaking for her entire generation. " 'Don't you see? This . . . this is exactly why we need you.' "
And this is exactly why I think Harry Potter is the same kind of early-warning agent as was the young Bob Dylan. This is what explains our children's spell-binding obsession with these books. Granted, the new Magus has not come in the form one might have expected. He is not a performer holding a guitar, he is a character in that ancient technology, the book. Nonetheless, Harry is the herald who offers a moral code in times of great upheaval that vibrates to this generation the way the early Dylan still echoes in the lives of boomers. He is the prophet and precursor of a new generation.
Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don't criticize
What you can't understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Please get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin'.
Joel Garreau, a Washington Post staff writer, is the author of the just-published "Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies -- And What It Means to Be Human" (Doubleday).