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It's hands-off J.K. Rowling at a "Harry Potter" book signing.

By Brett McNeil

NOVEMBER 1, 1999:  Strange thing, the celebrity writer: eager, if disheveled, hipsters anticipating a glimpse of their do-ragged hero, David Foster Wallace; a university mob waiting eagerly for grumpy old Kurt Vonnegut. Even Tama Janowitz draws a respectable crowd. But J.K. Rowling? Who the hell is that? For the uninitiated, Rowling is a 40-something Scot who writes children's stories about a boy named Harry Potter--stories that top best-seller charts. And, judging by the turnout for Friday night's book signing at Border's on Michigan Avenue, she's the biggest thing in family bonding since E.B. White. Hours before she's even scheduled to show up at Border's, readers and fans spill out of the store all the way to Rush Street. By the 7pm start time the estimated crowd of 1,500 snakes down Rush to Chestnut and down Chestnut halfway back to the Mag Mile.

Everywhere, there are kids, most of them sporting red lightning bolts on their foreheads. Why the lightning bolt, kid?

"See, Harry Potter's parents were killed by a wizard and Harry was spared but was marked for life with a lightning bolt on his forehead."


"Haven't you read the books?" the kid's mother asks. (There are currently three installments in what is planned as a seven-book series).


"Well you've got to read them," she says.

Rowling's books are as popular with adults as they are with kids. In fact, upon a little closer inspection, a few of those lightning bolts are found on foreheads old enough to know better. "They're wonderful books," says Debbie Meiman, a Mokena mother who has waited all day with her son. "They teach values like loyalty, honesty and caring."

Clad in green velvet jacket and stylish neo cat-eye specs, Rowling makes her grand entrance, smiling politely at the kids who shriek and press their way toward her. One man, no doubt putting sound to the feelings of many assembled dads, lets out a hoot.

Quickly, a gauntlet of eight handlers take the books from readers, open to the title page, set them down in front of Rowling, who offers greetings and nods as fans walk by, quickly scribbling her name into the books, which she's careful not to touch. They're handed back through a final lackey. Fans race into the corner to ponder the author's scrawl. One kid, sizing up her newly signed hardcover, sighs, "This is the best book ever."

But for all the adulation, no one gets to hear Rowling read even a single line of her prose, nor would they at any of three stops she made in the Chicago area last week. Instead, they're herded past her a fast pace to make room for the thousand other people waiting in line. Who are all the kids and moms and dads and single misfits streaming by Rowling? Why have they waited so long for such a brief non-encounter?

Does anybody, including the author, want to talk about Rowling's critics -- currently most vocal in South Carolina -- who say she glamorizes the occult? Not really. With so many people having such a good time, and so many parents happy to have their kids stoked about reading, who has time for that? There isn't enough time to actually read the books. There was hardly time enough to celebrate them.

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