Monday, July 16, 2007

Obligatory Harry Potter post

I've never , ever cracked one of the Harry Potter books open, simply because I wasn't all that interested in the story from the get-go. Maybe the 9,000th viewing of Star Wars cooled me on stories revolving around young men with incredible talents who are struggling with ancient birthrights. I've seen the movies and have found them agreeably entertaining, but what little I've read of Rowling's prose style hasn't done much for me. I get the feeling she's a Stephen King type: not much of a writer, but a hell of a storyteller.

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?
There was also a recent story in the New York Times that talked about how, Potter aside, kids aren't really reading much more than they used to -- less, in fact. Which didn't surprise me at all. It's a fatally easy mistake to take the highfalutin snob route and sneer at grown adults slamming their way through what's ostensibly a story for children, but it's an equally easy mistake to sigh dismissively and say, "Well, at least they're reading." People will always seek out a good story that makes them forget their boring, trivial lives, but they also should understand that writing is so much more complex, and fascinating, than being just a vessel for a simple story.

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