Is there any newspaper on the planet that isn't running a Harry Potter story this week? The bigger question is whether we'll be reading anything different from what we read when the other books in the series were published. So far, I'd have to say that the answer to both questions is "no."
Last Sunday, Ron Charles, senior editor of the Washington Post's "Book World," joined the parade in his article, "Harry Potter and the Death of Reading." He cited some of the depressing statistics that we've heard regularly from others on his side of the Potter debate:
- A 1994 study by Alan Sorensen at Stanford University reported that "in 1994, over 70 percent of total fiction sales were accounted for by a mere five authors." (It's hard to imagine that the statistics have improved since then.)
- In 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts released Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, which gauged the reading habits of America from 1982 to 2002. People were asked whether, over the past12 months, they had read any part of a novel, short story, poem, or play, excluding anything read for work or school. If they'd read the first two pages of, say, "Mandingo," (BookGirl refuses to link to this), the survey considered them literary readers. The results? The proportion of Americans reading "literature" declined from 56.9 percent in 1982 to 46.7 in 2002.
Understandably, Charles finds the diminishing number of readers of fiction discouraging, and he's equally disheartened by the people who tell him "I don't read fiction...I have so little time nowadays that when I read, I like to learn something." (Coincidentally, someone said virtually the same thing to BookGirl last week. One possible implication, with is so silly that BookGirl can't take offense, is that BookGirl, who reads mostly fiction, isn't interested in learning anything. The other, more important, implication is that one doesn't learn anything from reading fiction. This one does offend BookGirl.)
But Charles's main point is that the Harry Potter phenomenon isn't about reading at all, but about marketing. Being a Potter-Head, suggests Charles, is less about a gratifying personal experience with a book, and more about the experience of homogenization: becoming like every other Potter-Head:
"Perhaps submerging the world in an orgy of marketing hysteria doesn't encourage the kind of contemplation, independence and solitude that real engagement with books demands -- and rewards. Consider that, with the release of each new volume, Rowling's readers have been driven not only into greater fits of enthusiasm but into more precise synchronization with one another. Through a marvel of modern publishing, advertising and distribution, millions of people will receive or buy "The Deathly Hallows" on a single day. There's something thrilling about that sort of unity, except that it has almost nothing to do with the unique pleasures of reading a novel: that increasingly rare opportunity to step out of sync with the world, to experience something intimate and private, the sense that you and an author are conspiring for a few hours to experience a place by yourselves -- without a movie version or a set of action figures. Through no fault of Rowling's, Potter mania nonetheless trains children and adults to expect the roar of the coliseum, a mass-media experience that no other novel can possibly provide."This was the only genuine insight in Charles's article, although his implication that a kid would want to "step out of sync with the world," rather than be just like every other kid, seems naive. And while I agree with Charles's premise, I'm also certain that there are those who read Harry Potter books not because they want to run with the pack, but simply because they're drawn to the genre and/or enjoy the characters and plot and want to see them develop.
Frankly, I don't understand why people feel that they need to take sides on Potter. I'm delighted to see kids pick the books up, and like many other adults, I bought one for a child whom I hoped to entice into reading more often. In fact, if the Potters get anybody -- including adults -- reading, I'm thrilled. Charles, on the other hand, is distressed that adults are reading Harry Potter instead of books he considers better entries in the fantasy category, such as "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell" by Susanna Clarke and Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials."
I appreciate Charles's point that there are many, many deserving books that sell many, many, many (add about 100 more "manys" here) fewer copies than the Potter series, and this makes me sad. Unfortunately, for those who read the Potters for the reasons Charles outlines, neither Clarke's nor Pullman's books would fill the need that the Potters satisfy.
So if folks want to dash down to their favorite neighborhood bookstore dressed as -- whomever --- to celebrate the publication of the latest Potter, more power to them! Who knows, maybe they'll walk out with another book in addition to the one they've long been anticipating (BookGirl is feeling particularly optimistic today).