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‘Harry Potter’ builds strong arms

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"Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" is 752 pages long. Does that sound a tad bulky for a children's book? The first three Harry novels taught kids the joys of reading. The new one may teach them the important adult skill of carrying around large and trendy volumes of literature so you can say "I just started it" whenever the topic comes up in conversation.

Friday night at midnight, "Goblet of Fire" goes on sale amidst a hullabaloo, the likes of which Western literature has not seen since Charles Dickens killed off Little Nell. Nearly 4 million copies have already been printed for the American market alone, and every single one of them has 752 pages. That is longer than "The Brothers Karamazov" and way, way longer than "Moby Dick," even if you don't skip over the parts about how to prepare blubber.

"Goblet" is even longer than "Acheson: The Secretary of State Who Created the American World," the book George W. Bush started carrying around last year when questions arose about his intellectual firepower. (It is doubtful that Bush read any 752-page novels in his youth. When asked to name his favorite childhood book, he once mentioned "The Willie Mays Story," which he later admitted was not actually a book. His other responses have included his fourth-grade history text and "The Very Hungry Caterpillar," which was written the year after he graduated from Yale.)

"The Goblet of Fire" may turn out to be so tremendous that nobody notices the length, although personally, when I commit to a book that long, I want it to be something worth some serious credit, like "From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life." (Actually, my husband is currently carrying around "From Dawn to Decadence," but everybody knows that large tomes read by one spouse count as having been read by both.)

Most people have already heard the story of how J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter's creator, was a single mom living in an unheated apartment in Edinburgh. The idea for the series came to her while she was sitting disconsolately in a train that was stuck in a tunnel — truly an event to make us rethink the entire concept of mass-transit delays. She envisioned seven books, which would follow Harry into an inevitable battle with Voldemort, the rogue wizard who killed Harry's parents.

Many kids now regard literacy as a utilitarian skill, but Harry's magical powers include winning some of these vidkids over to the concept of reading for pleasure. Nothing warms the heart of an adult more than seeing a child curled up with a good book.

The Harry Potter books have been on the best-seller list so long now that it's clear adult sales must be helping to keep them aloft. At 400 pages I liked Harry a lot, although I tended to dwell on the accouterments of his parallel universe (owl-powered mail service, potions exams, wizard trading cards) and skip over the plots. Rowling, however, appears to be into the story line, which is going to get darker and more corpse-strewn with each of the ensuing segments.

She is now an incredibly rich and famous celebrity, seller of 30 million copies in 31 languages and clearly no longer a person to whom an editor can suggest that 752 pages is a little over the top. Harry is so popular that millions of strangers feel they have a stake in his future, but it's probably not fair to deny his creator her vision for the series. Rowling created the characters, and she has the right to kill them off (a "beloved character" is supposed to die in this installment) or turn them into Happy Meal action figures, if that's where her heart lies. But the sentimentalists among us are going to mourn the days when Harry existed only in books, which were once smaller than breadboxes.