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May 13, 2003
The Harry Potter effect

I've read about it and heard about it. Tonight I witnessed it. My eleven year old god-daughter is deep into one of the Harry Potter books. I asked if I could sit with her, and read a book, and I expected the reading to be replaced soon by conversation. But no. She concentrated completely on her book, and it took a monumental row about cello practice to wrench her away from it. Now that cello duties have been done, she is, I should imagine, back with Harry Potter.

Nor is this infection confined to Britain or to English readers like my god-daughter. French bookshops are full of Harry Potter, and I recall the same thing happening in Slovakia when I took a trip there.

I read the first one with mild interest, but felt no particular urge to read any more, but I put this down to the fact that I am not a member of the target demographic. I am not a child. But apparently many adults have also been engulfed in HP frenzy.

Whence the mania? A good yarn? A good yarn about children who have escaped the attentions of their parents? A good yarn that is sufficiently un-respectable (these books are surrounded by denunciations of their literary third-rateness from literary authorities) not to have been made into compulsory reading, and which therefore makes a change from being nagged by one's parents to practice the cello? All of that, I dare say. Whatever the reason, it certainly shows that there will always be things that children really, really want to read, and which they will accordingly read avidly, if they can read at all, and which will consequently make them better at reading.

With me it was the Doctor Doolittle books and the Swallows and Amazons books. Each generation to its own.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:40 PM
Category: Books

I have two kids ages 13 and 15 who are counting the days til the new HP book is published in the US on June 21st. The younger one has learning disabilities and supposedly she isnt able to read books that hard or that long. HA! HP got her into reading like no other book and she has gone on to Lord of the Rings, Artemis Fowl, Brian Jacques' books and a host of the bilge they write for the teeny bopper crowd. So do I care why she likes HP--not in the least. Have I read them all- you betcha!

The last one that came out caused a stir in our house because I would only spring for one copy so daughter got it till noon, son got it from noon til 5 when I arrive home and I got it til bed time. We had different colored sticky notes to mark our places and the one who told the plot before the others had gotten that far lost reading privs til the others were done. We'll probably do the same this time around.

And none of thier friends have read the books so it cant be a peer pressure thing. We critique the movies harshly too--the only ones they got right were Dumbledore and Snape.


Comment by: deb on May 14, 2003 02:40 PM

I want to live in the universe of Harry Potter! I want to be able to do magic! I want an owl and I want to go to Hogwarts! I think it is the way these books capture the imagination. They are easy to read, they flow, there are no boring parts, and they tap into those under-the-surface-of-consciousness shared concerns and experiences (like, Jung's 'collective unconscious') that many good stories do- Alice in Wonderland, the Narnia tales, Lord of the Rings... wahoo!

Comment by: lars on May 14, 2003 05:00 PM

Doctor Dolittle? My goodness, Michael, you may be older than I thought you were! Ah, but you're English, so mayhaps those rather old-fashioned books lasted longer on your side of the Atlantic. I loved Dr. Doolittle when I was a kid... but I thought the original had been replaced by the Rex Harrison version (and that, three decades or so later, replaced in its turn by the Eddie Murphy version).

I picked up a copy of the first Harry Potter, read twenty or thirty pages into it but it failed to come alive for me and I set it aside. However, we had heard good things about the first movie, so my wife and I went to see it. We both thought it was delightful. (Perhaps someone who had loved the book might have felt otherwise? I couldn't say.) We also thoroughly enjoyed the second movie and will surely go to see the third when it comes out. One of these days I may come across the first HP book (it's around the house somewhere) and give it another try.

I do understand additction to book series. I am currently in the middle of A Storm of Swords, the third book in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series. I had picked up the first (A Game of Thrones) rather reluctantly, didn't think it would suit my tastes (despite a love for Lord of the Rings I tend to prefer hard science fiction) but it grabbed me from the very first one of its more than six hundred pages. The second book (A Clash of Kings) was of equal size. The third is more than nine hundred pages. I just found out that there will be a fourth book to be published in September and I will be awaiting it quite as eagerly as the most devout Potter fan waiting for the next HP fix.

Comment by: Jim on May 14, 2003 06:49 PM

Duh, did I say "Michael" -- I mean "Brian" -- I had been reading Michael Jennings' blog before moving to yours and I guess my brain hadn't caught up yet.

Comment by: Jim on May 14, 2003 08:33 PM

I am not sure whether to find that flattering, or worrying.

I started reading the Harry Potter books late, but I have enjoyed them, and I am looking forward to the next one. I think they are superbly plotted, although I think the major characters are a bit too stereotypical. (Some of the minor characters are better).

Interestingly enough, the English edition of the new book is listed at number 1 on the bestseller lists on both French and German Amazon. The translations are a few months later. It may be that this means social death for French and German children who are incapable of reading the originals, and this who are not capable of reading English. That's an interesting consequence.

Comment by: Michael Jennings on May 15, 2003 12:23 PM

What had the most influence on my decision to finally cave in and read the series was the fact that literary critics and others who see no shame in the "intellectual" label were so nastily (sometimes politely) negative in their reviews.

Reading the reviews of the first book carefully, I noticed that the criticisms were both uniform and vague. The writing style was sniffed at, the characters lacked nuance and subtlety, as did the overall plot, which had the temerity to be about something as crass and silly as a "good" boy fighting an "evil" villain. In other words, it was a children's book, which fact really, really seems to confuse Smart People.

Of course, I was delighted to read it. It smacked of the same kind of kid-growing-up flavor as Lloyd Alexander's Prydain series.

My own enjoyment of the books aside, what I see in the whole Harry Potter argument is simply more proof of an argument made recently by best-selling author Orson Scott Card about Tolkien's books; to wit: Serious "LitCrits" hate the Lord of the Rings because the public loves LoR. This is because the public is still quite unashamed to enjoy stories while the LitCrits had that trait wrenched, I mean, trained out of them in the universities. For the serious student of Great Literature, stories are for the uneducated; real intellectuals deal with what stories mean.

Except that the literature that is most loved by the greatest percentage of, well, people who like reading is the kind of literature that defies the very methods of interpretation and intellectual gymnastics that Intellectuals enjoy so much. [how's THAT for a sentence?]

It is a control issue. Speaking as a current English Literature major (hey - I won my college's "Best Writing About Literature" award last year - I'm a bona-fide Smart Guy), what I've come to see is that the people who really hate the "Potter" books (and I know you are not one of them, so this does not apply to you) hate them because they can't control how people read them - the unwashed have embraced scripture that the priests didn't write, and, OH, how this bugs your average professor(!).

Think about it: Every last "ism" an Eng Lit major has to study is the product of some wind bag who couldn't stand that people weren't seeing the same things in literature that he or she was seeing.

And, furthermore . . .

Good heavens! I apologize for going on a rant.

Comment by: Cameron on May 16, 2003 11:37 PM

is there to be a fourth book in the artemis fowl series if there is not a fourth book i would like to say that for such a brilliant writer he has ended the great series stupidly please email me the awnser to that question.

Comment by: matt on June 1, 2003 12:56 AM

Harry Potter has made me go crazy becaus i just love it! How this happened to me and thousands of other people I don't know how, but all the cradit goes to J. K. Rowling.

Comment by: Susan on November 12, 2003 07:53 PM
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