The Harry Potter series
Like you, I began this assignment with a mixture of puzzlement and skepticism. I was, for one thing, suspicious of the media hype--to which we are now, of course, contributing--around these books, and I still dread the eventual movies and the inevitable merchandising frenzy that will follow. My son has just graduated from the Tellytubbies to Arthur, and I fear the day isn't far off when Tinky-Winky and Laa-Laa and D.W. and Francine will have to shove over on his shelves to make way for Aldus Dumbeldore, Hermione Granger, and the other must-have action figures, not to mention the toy broomsticks, wands, owls, and endless other wee wizard paraphernalia sure to flood the market soon. And then there will be the McDonald's Harry Potter Magic Happy Meals, the CD-ROMS, the cut-rate knock-offs, and the other excrescences of kid-culture overkill. Look what they did to poor Winnie-the-Pooh!
I also had to overcome some grownup resistance to the books themselves, mostly owing to the atrophying of my capacity for the kind of flashlight-under-the-covers, breathless absorption you evoke so nicely. That the Harry Potter books restore this capacity with brilliant efficiency must be part of the reason they appeal to adults. But, as you point out, they're hardly unique in this. They're not better than The Phantom Tollbooth, or Ursula LeGuin's "Earthsea Trilogy," or T.H. White's The Once and Future King. Nor are they better (you asked for my favorites) than E.L. Konigsberg's From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, or Louise Fitzhugh's books (Harriet the Spy is best known, but the one I remember best is Nobody's Family Is Going To Change). But that Harry Potter merits mention in this company suggests that he's the real thing.
I don't know why it is that adult readers--including myself, since my reading life (which is to say, my life) is divided evenly between bedtime stories for younger children and serious adult fiction (plenty of dreck there!)--eschew the pleasures these books afford, especially since we are likely to have fond, intense memories of just those pleasures. We try to recapture them with genre schlock, as though the dream world of our youth were a tacky theme park. And yet it's evident that J.K. Rowling is a formidably talented--and, more important, a rigorously competent--novelist, much better at the rudiments of effective fiction writing than any six American novelists under 50. She's meticulous in her plotting, economical in her descriptions, and exact in her portraiture. There's no reason why solid storytelling, brisk prose, and vivid characters should appeal exclusively, or primarily, to children, though children are less likely to submit to being bored, pandered to, preached at, or intimidated.
In each of these books--ingeniously structured around the cycle of the Hogwarts school year--Rowling manages to impart new information about the wizard world (and slyly fill you in in case you've missed the earlier installments, something that will become increasingly important as the series fills its projected seven volumes and sales figures mount into the trillions), to advance the long-term narrative conflict (about Harry's search for his origins, and his Manichean struggle with Voldemort, a wizard who's gone over to the Dark Side), and to create and resolve enough satisfying short- and middle-term conundrums to make the volume stand alone.
She also understands the importance of evil, both metaphysical (Voldemort), and human: Petunia and Vernon Dursley, the Muggle aunt and uncle who raise Harry in his orphanhood, along with their doted-on, sublimely piggish son Dudley, are grotesques worthy of Roald Dahl; Draco Malfoy, Harry's nemesis at Hogwarts, and Severus Snape (she's terrific with names), the diabolical potions teacher, are brilliant foils for Harry's flawed, instinctual goodness. And Rowling understands that goodness is not the same as innocence, a concept in which children have no interest (knowing, as adults refuse to, that they are entirely without it). The threesome of Harry, Ron Weasely, and Hermione Granger (who is likely to be everybody's favorite character) are believably mischievous, competitive, vain, and, for all their intelligence, prone to childish foolishness (e.g. the clever, studious Hermione's stubborn crush on the egotistical charlatan Professor Lockhart in Chamber of Secrets).
The Potter craze, I think, is not unlike the Star Wars phenomenon 22 summers ago, which also took the world somewhat by surprise (although Star Wars was more carefully calculated to appeal to both kids and adults, whereas the adult appetite for Harry's escapades seems to have been anticipated by nobody). Like the first Star Wars movie, the Harry Potter books have an instantly classic, ineffably old-fashioned quality about them. They ingeniously recombine elements of fairy tale, religious allegory (Harry as the chosen one), half-remembered childhood reading, and pop culture (including, fairly explicitly in the case of Potter, the Star Wars cycle itself) into something new, fresh, and irresistible. You feel, somehow, that they have always been there, waiting for you to discover. You also feel, in spite of being one of several million crazed fans, that they were written for you alone, a wizard stranded in an uncomprehending Muggle world, waiting for someone to recognize that what everyone else calls your abnormalities are really powers. This, I think, is the deep appeal of these books (and of a number of the others we've mentioned). They tap into a universal condition of childhood--the sense of being misunderstood, different, special.
But why these books, why now? It's probably a mistake to try to read to much cultural significance into their extraordinary success--just as it would be in the case of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Angela's Ashes, or the other out-of-the-blue runaway bestsellers of the past few years. But it must mean something, no? What do you think?