As Lucy Kobbs turned the final page of the seventh and last book in the "Harry Potter" series, she took a pencil to the wall beside her bed and memorialized the end of an era: 7/22/07, 3:20 a.m.
"It's one of those books that will stick with me for life," said Kobbs, who started reading the first "Harry Potter" book when she was in sixth grade, about the same age as the bespectacled young wizard who grew up alongside her, and finished the last within a day of its release.
Now 23, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and working as a sales associate, Kobbs is part of the so-called "Generation Hex," kids who came of age with the series' release and even in adulthood find their reading habits shaped by J.K. Rowling's magic.
Many are fantasy buffs, follow serials, have high standards for story. Many devour books, big ones, unfazed by 870-page tomes like "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix."
Suzanne Keen, English professor and interim dean at Washington and Lee University, said she was struck that the sophomores who took her seminar last fall on Charles Dickens were far more capable of dealing with his long material than the students who took the class five years earlier.
"They had in effect learned how to deal with very long fiction, multi-plot novels, large casts of characters, humorous satire," Keen said. She said other English professors have noticed similar improvements in students' abilities to handle Victor Hugo's work and William Makepeace Thackeray's "Vanity Fair."
Keen sees quantitative evidence of this shift in a large study by the Census Bureau and the National Endowment for the Arts, which in 2008 found a sharp reversal in the steady decline in adult literary reading. The improvement among 18- to 24-year-olds was particularly "startling," the study found, with 21 percent more literary readers than six years before. Though the study credits literacy programs, Keen wonders if the "Harry Potter" generation had entered the sample pool, a heartening sign even if all they're reading is young adult fantasy.
"A person who has a habit of immersion reading, I can work with that reader in a way to open them up to somewhat more difficult and challenging works of fiction," Keen said.
John Granger, an authority on Harry Potter as literature, said it's not just Gen Hex whose literary outlook has been transformed by Rowling. Hoping to re-create the Harry Potter experience, publishers have covered bookstore walls with serial fiction aiming to keep readers engaged with chosen-one characters in supernatural situations fighting to deliver the world from some evil.
"Harry Potter represents really a pivotal point in literacy and appreciation of literature that no one could have anticipated," said Granger, known as "The Hogwarts Professor" and author of "The Deathly Hallows Lectures." "We don't realize that we are all swimming in a Harry Potter ocean."
An ocean of more than 4,000 wand-wielding fans poured into the Chicago Hilton earlier this month for the massive Harry Potter convention LeakyCon, named after the Leaky Cauldron pub in the series that can only be seen by wizards. Undying love for Hogwarts met heady anticipation for Rowling's new novel, her first to target an adult audience.
"The Casual Vacancy," to be released Sept. 27, has been kept under tight wraps. The publisher released only a vague description about an election in a divided English town, stirring excitement and curiosity among fans who wonder how Rowling's style will translate to real-world settings.
"I'm nervous, I worry about what other people are going to say," said Michael Crowley, 22, who starts law school this fall at Boston University, exuding a loving protectiveness of Rowling that abounds among her fans. "You don't speak bad about the queen, and you don't speak bad about J.K.R."
What J.K.R — or J.K., or Jo, or Goddess Rowling, as the most diehard Potterheads call her — did to earn such literary loyalty ranges from the subtle to the seismic, from sparking imagination to molding book choices to being the reason some kids read at all.
Kobbs, who likes to pick up '80s and '90s fantasy series she finds at thrift stores, said she reads all books through the lens of "Harry Potter," examining how well they execute Rowling's devices.
Grace Smith, who started listening to Harry Potter as books on tape during family road trips when she was 7, said the series raised her standards.
"I don't have any patience for things that aren't thought out," said Smith, 19, a biology major at Oakland University in Michigan, who on this occasion was dressed as Professor Dumbledore's pet phoenix Fawkes, though somewhat more elegant in a long red evening gown with cardboard wings, tail feathers and a beak on her head.
Since the series ended, Smith has immersed herself in Wally Lamb's fiction because she appreciates "popular books that are really well-written."