announced on Twitter that I will not be tolerating any spoilers regarding the latest and last Harry Potter book (indeed, as of Friday afternoon, I will be going officially and completely "offline" for several days in order to revel in my reading without interruption or distraction). In response, a friend of mine announced (I hope playfully!), "Harry Potter is bad for America" and sent me a link to an article by Ron Charles published a few days ago in the Washington Post. Now, personally, any time someone says something is Bad for America, I tend to giggle a little bit and maybe wink conspiratorially in the direction of the responsible party. But being a thoughtful person with my fair share of crusades against ignorance and infantilism, I like to give even the most curmudgeony protester a chance to make their case.
So what exactly were Mr. Ron Charles's objections to the Harry Potter books? For most of the article, he dwells almost exclusively on the mass-marketing of the books (with their subsequent movies and merchandise) to seemingly intelligent, mature adults. He laments this "bad case of cultural infantilism," with its "Cap'n Crunch in a Gucci bag" adult editions of Rowling's books and the ever-increasing synchronization of the public's "fits of enthusiasm" on each book's worldwide release date. Of course, the same stunt was tried with the final two films of the Matrix Trilogy, which fell disastrously flat--so perhaps childish, synchronized enthusiasm for mass-marketed media is not the sole explanation for the Harry Potter books now decade-long success, after all.
Charles has, it seems, stepped beyond the job description of "book critic" and become an analyst of cultural trends. Since I'm not professionally qualified to be either, and yet here I am pretending to be both, I suppose I'm not one to complain. Furthermore, I don't entirely disagree with him regarding his general misgivings about the decline of serious readership, and the glorification, even among those who deem themselves "professional writers", of the "pop novel" which strives to be a book-version of what might as well be the latest Thursday-night television drama. I've ranted on about these very topics.
On the other hand, I am a fan of the Harry Potter books. I am also, I'd like to think, an intelligent, mature adult (no, I don't just play one on the internet). My tiny apartment is crammed with bookshelves, all creaking under the weight of myriad "serious" works of classical and contemporary fiction, as well as poetry, creative nonfiction, philosophy, mythology, and the like. Does this make me a hypocrite? No. Does it make me an exception to the "cultural infantilism" that so disturbs Charles? Perhaps. But I think, most importantly, it suggest that the Harry Potter craze is not a cause or contributor to the "death of reading" in America, but a symptom of much larger cultural trends. In a modern world where "seriousness" is often a synonym for cynicism, pessimism, irony and apathy, Rowling has written a set of books addressing "serious" subjects such as death, truth, morality, power, corruption, choice and hope--books that are not only accessible to children (whom we have, perhaps, learned to dismiss as potentially "serious" readers), but which actually trace the complicated process of growing into adulthood.
At this point, we might throw our hands up into the air as the debate over Harry Potter devolves into a passionate (and equally biased) he-said-she-said scuffle. Charles's only direct criticism of the books are regarding "the repetitive plots, the static characters, the pedestrian prose, the wit-free tone, the derivative themes," but he fails to cite any specific examples from the books themselves. Indeed, at the beginning of the article, he seems to imply that he has only ever read three and a half of what will be seven total books (the first three being by far the shortest, simplest and most "childish," as any Harry Potter fan will tell you). Is it possible that he is that notorious kind of critic, most annoying and belligerent of all--the kind who hasn't even read the books he's criticizing? Horror of horrors. Of course, we will forgive him for this possibility--we understand that his career demands that most of his time be spent reading "serious" novels written for "adults" and that he would have no reason to read children's books that his daughter had grown bored with. (We will also forgive him for assuming that, when a sleepy ten-year-old grows bored of listening to her father read a book in a disengaged monotone, it must mean the book is boring and the story is bad. After all, Mr. Charles is a book critic, not an expert on the various techniques of the artistic craft of oral story-telling.)
What is left for us, then? In my next post, I will look at some of the things that, as an actual reader of the Harry Potter books, I have most enjoyed and appreciated about the series. I'll discuss how I think the books' central themes address some of the underlying symptoms of "cultural infantilism" that concerns both Charles & me (and, I would guess, probably bothers Rowling as well). So, until then...