Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Potter-Mania and Elitist Snobbery
Sorry my blogging pace has truly been horrendous lately. Duty and Life call, sadly. But I have to post something in advance of Potter-mania. With the new book coming out, I've heard stories on NPR; it's on the news, it's in my inbox (30% off!!). I've never read one of the books, but I know plenty of grown-ups and kids alike who think they're just swell. I have a couple of questions: first, who here has read one or more books and what do you think? Are you constantly aware you're reading literature intended for children?

But more importantly, I'm wondering this: let's suppose they are not the greatest books ever, that the literary quality, however one might decide such things, is seriously lacking. Even if so, is there a downside? Isn't it better for kids to be obsessed with reading *something* as far as their brains and attention spans go than receiving all their sensory info through TV, their brain activity through video games, and their experience with the written word primarily through text messages?

I would think these books could be quite the gateway drug to future reading, and it's hard to see that as a bad thing. But apparently some are still worried about people mistaking JK Rowling for actual literature. From Kevin Drum, I read this Charles Taylor column in the LATimes complaining about discontented highbrow snob Harold Bloom, who 7 years ago complained in the Wall Street Journal:
I feel a discomfort with the Harry Potter mania, and I hope that my discontent is not merely a highbrow snobbery, or a nostalgia for a more literate fantasy to beguile (shall we say) intelligent children of all ages. Can more than 35 million book buyers, and their offspring, be wrong? yes, they have been, and will continue to be for as long as they persevere with Potter.

A vast concourse of inadequate works, for adults and for children, crams the dustbins of the ages. At a time when public judgment is no better and no worse than what is proclaimed by the ideological cheerleaders who have so destroyed humanistic study, anything goes. The cultural critics will, soon enough, introduce Harry Potter into their college curriculum, and The New York Times will go on celebrating another confirmation of the dumbing-down it leads and exemplifies.
To be fair, Bloom earlier in that piece made the same concession that I just did: that it's better than not reading. But I think this takes the wrong view of the role of children's literature. I may just not be in the know - but which kid's books *are* considered great literature? Tolkien? Rowling readers, how would Potter compare there? Even then, that seems unfair. The kids I knew who read Tolkien, read the ring books in junior high and high school. I think I was 13 when I read the Hobbit. But it looks to me like Potter readers are younger still...a nephew under 10 was all set to get the new book at midnight.

Anyway, my real question follows, and assumes that more reading youngsters today will likely translate into more reading adults in the future. Does the explosion of kids reading Potter mean that *more* people will eventually be on a track to read highly regarded literature than would otherwise? Or does it mean that *fewer* people will be on that track because they'll be conditioned to read more popular, I dunno, trashy novels. Could Potter stunt your reading growth? It seems like a preposterous idea, but otherwise I can't see why even the serious set would do anything but cheer cheer cheer the phenomenal growth of Rowling's creation.

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