Harry Potter and the Death of Reading

Harry Potter
Nico Seevers, 5, leaves the Harry Potter Knight bus in front of the San Francisco public library main branch on Wednesday, July 11, 2007, in San Francisco, Calif. J.K. Rowling's much anticipated seventh and final book "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows." (Jeff Chiu - Jeff Chiu - AP)

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By Ron Charles
Sunday, July 15, 2007

It happened on a dark night, somewhere in the middle of Book IV. For three years, I had dutifully read the "Harry Potter" series to my daughter, my voice growing raspy with the effort, page after page. But lately, whole paragraphs of "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" had started to slip by without my hearing a word. I'd snap back to attention and realize the action had moved from Harry's room to Hagrid's house, and I had no idea what was happening.

And that's when my daughter broke the spell: "Do we have to keep reading this?"

O, the shame of it: a 10-year-old girl and a book critic who had had enough of "Harry Potter." We were both a little sad, but also a little relieved. Although we'd had some good times at Hogwarts, deep down we weren't wild about Harry, and the freedom of finally confessing this secret to each other made us feel like co-conspirators.

Along with changing diapers and supervising geometry homework, reading "Harry Potter" was one of those chores of parenthood that I was happy to do -- and then happy to stop. But all around me, I see adults reading J.K. Rowling's books to themselves: perfectly intelligent, mature people, poring over "Harry Potter" with nary a child in sight. Waterstone's, a British book chain, predicts that the seventh and (supposedly) final volume, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," may be read by more adults than children. Rowling's U.K. publisher has even been releasing "adult editions." That has an alarmingly illicit sound to it, but don't worry. They're the same books dressed up with more sophisticated dust jackets -- Cap'n Crunch in a Gucci bag.

I'd like to think that this is a romantic return to youth, but it looks like a bad case of cultural infantilism. And when we're not horning in on our kids' favorite books, most of us aren't reading anything at all. More than half the adults in this country won't pick up a novel this year, according to the National Endowment for the Arts. Not one. And the rate of decline has almost tripled in the past decade.

That statistic startles me, even though I hear it again and again. Whenever I confess to people who work for a living that I'm a book critic, I inevitably get the same response: "Imagine being able to sit around all day just reading novels!" Then they turn to each other and shake their heads, amazed that anything so effete should pass for a profession. (I can see it in their eyes: the little tufted pillow, the box of bonbons nearby.) "I don't read fiction," they say, suddenly serious. "I have so little time nowadays that when I read, I like to learn something." But before I can suggest what one might learn from reading a good novel, they pop the question about The Boy Who Lived: "How do you like 'Harry Potter'?"

Of course, it's not really a question anymore, is it? In the current state of Potter mania, it's an invitation to recite the loyalty oath. And you'd better answer correctly. Start carrying on like Moaning Myrtle about the repetitive plots, the static characters, the pedestrian prose, the wit-free tone, the derivative themes, and you'll wish you had your invisibility cloak handy. Besides, from anyone who hasn't sold the 325 million copies that Rowling has, such complaints smack of Bertie Bott's beans, sour-grapes flavor.

Shouldn't we just enjoy the $4 billion party? Millions of adults and children are reading! We keep hearing that "Harry Potter" is the gateway drug that's luring a reluctant populace back into bookstores and libraries. Even teenage boys -- Wii-addicted, MySpace-enslaved boys! -- are reading again, and if that's not magic, what is?

Unfortunately, the evidence doesn't encourage much optimism. Data from the NEA point to a dramatic and accelerating decline in the number of young people reading fiction. Despite their enthusiasm for books in grade school, by high school, most kids are not reading for pleasure at all. My friends who teach English tell me that summaries and critical commentary are now so readily available on the Internet that more and more students are coming to class having read about the books they're studying without having read the books.

And when their parents do pick up a novel, it's often one that leaves a lot to be desired. True, Oprah Winfrey can turn serious works of fiction such as Jeffrey Eugenides's "Middlesex" or Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" into megasellers. But among the top 20 best-selling books on Amazon.com this week, only six are novels -- and that includes the upcoming seventh volume of He Who Must Not Be Outsold, James Patterson's "The Quickie," the 13th volume of Janet Evanovich's comic mystery series and a vampire love saga.

How could the ever-expanding popularity of Harry Potter take place during such an unprecedented decline in the number of Americans reading fiction?

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.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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