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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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The schools often don't help, either. As I look back on my dozen years of teaching English, I wish I'd spent less time dragging my students through the classics and more time showing them how to strike out on their own and track down new books they might enjoy. Without some sense of where to look and how to look, is it any wonder that most people who want to read fiction glom onto a few bestsellers that everybody's talking about?

In "The Long Tail," Wired editor Chris Anderson suggested that new methods of distribution would shatter the grip of blockbusters. Niche markets would evolve and thrive as never before, creating a long, vital line of products from small producers who never could have profited in the past. It's a cheering notion, but alas, the big head still pretty much overrules the long tail. Like the basilisk that terrorized students at Hogwarts in Book II, "Harry Potter" and a few other much-hyped books devour everyone's attention, leaving most readers paralyzed in praise, apparently incapable of reading much else.

According to a study by Alan Sorensen at Stanford University, "In 1994, over 70 percent of total fiction sales were accounted for by a mere five authors." There's not much reason to think that things have changed. As Albert Greco of the Institute for Publishing Research puts it: "People who read fiction want to read hits written by known authors who are there year after year."

So we're experiencing the literary equivalent of a loss of biodiversity. All those people carrying around an 800-page novel looks like a great thing for American literacy, but it's as ominous as a Forbidden Forest with only one species of tree. Since Harry Potter first Apparated into our lives a decade ago, the number of stand-alone book sections in major metropolitan newspapers has decreased by half -- silencing critical voices that once helped a wide variety of authors around the country get noticed.

The vast majority of adults who tell me they love "Harry Potter" never move on to Susanna Clarke's enchanting "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell," with its haunting exploration of history and sexual longing, or Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials," a dazzling fantasy series that explores philosophical themes (including a scathing assault on organized religion) that make Rowling's little world of good vs. evil look, well, childish. And what about the dozens of other brilliant fantasy authors who could take them places that little Harry never dreamed of? Or the wider world of Muggle literary fiction beyond?

According to Amazon, the best-selling book of 2006 was "Cesar's Way: The Natural, Everyday Guide to Understanding and Correcting Common Dog Problems," by Cesar Millan. My favorite was "The Law of Dreams," a first novel by a 56-year-old writer named Peter Behrens. It's the story of an orphaned boy who doesn't know why he survived the evil force that killed his parents -- and left him scarred. Set during the Irish potato famine of 1847, it's not a fantasy, and it's not for children, but there are plenty of monsters here, and Behrens writes in a style that's pure magic. As of this writing, it has sold 8,367 copies in the United States. It's enough to make a book critic snap his broom in two.

charlesr@washpost.com

Ron Charles is a senior editor of The Post's Book World section.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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