In 1841, when Charles Dickens finished the last installment of "The Old Curiosity Shop," his American fans were so desperate to find out the ending that they stormed the New York piers and shouted to incoming ships, "Is Little Nell alive?"
You can hear the same question today, only now the name is Harry.
"OK, you guys. Is Harry going to die?" a cashier at the grocery asked my friend Nancy and her son the other day.
Pretty much anyone, anywhere, can get into a whole conversation with the laughs and the bonding and the way-too-detailed theories merely by pondering young Harry Potter's fate. You can ponder with a friend or a stranger, a grown-up or an 8-year-old (or, of course, your amazingly precocious preschooler). Come midnight July 21, however, all those ponderings will end.
Every generation from now on is going to know the arc of this classic "Oh yeah, that's that great series with the really sad ending." Or not.
How precious this time is, then, when we can still bite our nails and wonder what J.K. Rowling has in store for us. Imagine sitting in the Globe Theatre on opening night and not knowing whether maybe Romeo and his girlfriend were going to get hitched and open up Juliet's Juicy Pie Company. Ever since then, we've known: no pies. That night was special.
"It's kind of like watching a ballgame in the third inning, or the seventh," said Leonard Cassuto, an English professor at Fordham University. "Those sequential memories get rolled into a ball at the end of the ninth, and that's how you store them. You'll think, 'Yeah, that was the game where 'X' happened.' But you won't remember what you were thinking or feeling those two innings before 'X' happened."
Over at Mugglenet.com, one of the most popular Harry Potter fan sites, an editor named Rachel said she was having mixed feelings about the dwindling time left before Book 7. "Initially, I was really excited for this summer," she said in an e-mail. "But I started getting cold feet. Do I want it to end?"
I sure don't. If Harry dies I don't even want to think it. And for now, I don't have to.
When readers learned the fate of Little Nell, they took it hard. "Dickens readers were drowned in a wave of grief," one of the author's biographers, Edgar Johnson, wrote: "(The actor) Macready, returning home from the theater, saw the print of the child lying dead … a dead chill ran through his blood. 'I have never read printed words that gave me so much pain,' he wrote in his diary ... Daniel O'Connell, the Irish M.P., reading the book in a railway carriage, burst into tears, groaned, 'He should not have killed her,' and despairingly threw the volume out the window."
And all this after readers had showered the author with letters imploring him to let Little Nell live, said Victor Gulotta, a Dickens collector.
Today's letters are on the Internet: Blogs and comments from Harry readers steeling themselves for the worst, and in the meantime, unable to stop talking about it.
"Dickens knew and Rowling knows how to build up expectation and suspense, getting you intellectually interested and emotionally captured," said the author of another Dickens biography, Fred Kaplan.
Kaplan proceeded to discuss the authors' craft and times, the amazing parallels between their work and then, just as we were about to hang up, he added quietly: "I hope Harry doesn't die. Do you think he'll die?"
And so began another conversation, just before they all shall end.