When Charles Dickens published his novels serially, American readers would line up at New York's shipyards and docks, anxiously and impatiently awaiting the ships that brought Dickens' works from England.
Then there was a break from that sort of thing. And then there was Harry Potter.
I know that comparison sounds fairly melodramatic, but stick with me for a sec: As J.K. Rowling's kid-lit series concludes on Saturday, so will an extraordinary period in worldwide pop culture. There's a reason one has to go back to the 19th century to find something that compares to the millions who'll be lining up at bookstores on Friday night, waiting to get their hands on the seventh and final Potter: People simply don't line up to read anymore. (There's no shortage of villains to blame for this, from the popular ones—TV, videogames, ever-shortening attention spans—to less popular ones, like the current, depressing dearth of literature that's intelligent, original, and broadly accessible.) Rowling's books are notable for a lot things—their literary heart, complexity, humor, smarts, and inventiveness—but perhaps most noteworthy is that they've made public reading, and discussion about it, popular again.
Everyone—from your six-year-old nephew to your doddering grandmother to that creepy teenage girl dressed like a Hufflepuff who's currently watching Order of the Phoenix for the 23rd time—has opinions about how Rowling's long-awaited book will (or won't) wrap up everything Potter. But the most interesting thing about those predictions and questions isn't whether they're right or whether they'll be answered. The most important thing is that these things are being asked, discussed, and debated—and not just in elementary school hallways or public libraries, but in bars, on busses and subways and the internet, in doctors' offices and break rooms.
Rowling's books are great, but even greater has been their impact: At one minute past midnight on Saturday, readers all over the world will rush home, or to a barstool, or to the nearest open spot on the sidewalk—to read. And in the days and weeks to follow, they'll be talking, with friends and strangers, about what they've read. That's something amazing, impressive, promising, and way too rare. And I hope, post-Potter, something even close to it will happen again sometime soon. But I'm not holding my breath.