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The whole world is wild about Harry

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On Saturday morning, a very special train will pull out of King's Cross Station in London. Its cargo: the woman whose stories about a young wizard-in-training have enchanted readers of all ages - in some 110 countries.

The four-day promotional tour by British author J.K. Rowling hardly seems necessary. "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," installment No. 4 in her series, will be flying out of bookstores faster than the young protagonist's new Firebolt broomstick.

Potter aficionados camped out at stores in the US, Britain, and Canada will be the first to get their hands on the book. But this is a global phenomenon. And no literary series or single book has swept the world as quickly as this tale about an orphan boy, raised by uncaring relatives, who discovers he has the sorcerer's touch.

Harry's adventures are now being read in 40 languages, including Faeroese, Serbian, Thai, and Indonesian. Editors and critics say the themes of friendship, self-reliance, and tolerance transcend cultural boundaries.

Worldwide sales of the series since the first book was published in 1997 in Britain number about 35 million (more than half of them in the US).

In Japan, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," the first title, was released in Japanese just six months ago. It has been gaining popularity, selling 500,000 copies as of May and topping the bestseller list.

Though stores stock it in the children's section, pensioners have been snatching up the book, according to a survey by publisher and translator Yuko Matsuoka. It is most popular, however, with women in their 20s and 30s - a niche with increasing purchasing power. And in a culture that venerates otaku - obsessive dedication to one hobby, such as collectible items or real or fictional characters - Harry Potter fan clubs are blossoming like chrysanthemums. A Japanese Web site touts plans for parties in Tokyo and Osaka to mark Harry's birthday, July 31.

Accessibility a factor

"It is easily slipped into as a book, but it isn't an easy book as such," says Prue Goodwin, a lecturer at the Reading and Language Information Centre at the University of Reading in Britain. "You can be taken into the narrative fully, and be engaged in it without struggling with a subtext or a difficult vocabulary."

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