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The Power of Books

Two events occurred this past week that bring to mind the power of books. On July 25, Tim LaHaye died, and six days later, at precisely 12:01 am on July 31, the eighth Harry Potter book was released.

LaHaye, of course, was the creator and co-author of Left Behind, a series of 16 books published between 1995 and 2007 that became the bestselling series of Christian fiction books in history, with 80 million copies sold to date.

The first Harry Potter book was published the year the last Left Behind novel was released. In the nine years since, more than 450 million Harry Potter books have been sold worldwide, making J.K. Rowling’s iconic books the bestselling general fiction series of all time.

For its part, Left Behind had an enormous impact on Christian publishing and bookselling, showing that fiction books with biblical themes could find a wide audience, while bringing new customers to Christian bookstores at a time when the retail landscape was changing. Harry Potter encouraged a new generation of readers and spawned countless films, ancillary products, even a theme park.

That’s pretty powerful stuff, and it all started with two series of books.

It’s doubtful LaHaye and Rowling ever met, and it’s probable that neither read the other’s books. Yet they are linked in a way that goes beyond their respective distinctions as the authors of the biggest books of their kind in the Christian and general market. What connects LaHaye and Rowling is the year 2007, when Left Behind ended and Harry Potter began.

In what became an epicenter of historic change for books, 2007 was the year Apple’s iPhone and Amazon’s Kindle were released, forever altering the way we access content and read books. The predictions calling for the demise of print were widespread. The experts were certain ebooks would rule the world and effectively make printed books obsolete.

It’s true that both devices sparked a period of dramatic disruption for publishing and bookselling, but the change has abated. Ebooks have reached an equilibrium of sorts, settling in at 20 percent of total book sales. Publishers are experiencing modest gains, and independent bookstores are staging a comeback.

Technology may be driving cars these days, but in the world of books, technology has taken a back seat. Few of us have a hankering for the latest iPhone or Kindle. The ones we have work just fine. Even more significantly, young readers (digital natives) seem to prefer actual pages to screens.

So what does all of this have to do with Left Behind and Harry Potter? Each series, though very different in its theme, demonstrates that books have the ability attract vast numbers of people, no matter how they are delivered and what format they are in. Left Behind came before the Kindle and iPhone were released, and Harry Potter came after, yet both series found an enormous audience.

Combined sales of more than 500 million books representing more than 500 million readers speak to the popularity of these very different series, and in a larger sense to the power of books and the stories they tell. Technology helps facilitate our access to books—Gutenburg’s printing press was as impressive a piece of technology as your smartphone—but technology is only a tool.

Books, whether print or digital, are more than the sum of their parts. They are more than words on a page or screen. Books are living, breathing, dynamic volumes that come from the heart and soul and intelligence of real people—like Tim LaHaye and J.K. Rowling. Books are powerful because they can entertain, teach, inspire, and change us in ways that other media cannot.
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