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Harry Potter and the Death of Reading

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.

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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