Monday, July 16, 2007

The Elite Attack Harry Potter

With the publication of what is said to be the final Harry Potter novel just a few days away, the self-appointed experts on the future of literacy have their knives out for him.

The New York Times, for example, published Potter Magic Has Limited Effect On Youngsters' Readings Habits on its front page last week.

The "evidence"?

A few surveys report that a majority of kids are saying they don't read too much for "fun" (presumably they read for school). In other words, "proof" that Harry Potter is not having an enduring effect is based not on sales of novels in the future - which of course has not happened as yet - but on what kids say they are or will be doing. Anyone with even a preliminary knowledge of surveying and statistics knows that it is the weakest kind of evidence - all but meaningless.

Meanwhile, buried two-thirds into the article is this: "In a study commissioned last year by Scholastic, Yankelovich, a market research firm, reported that 51 percent of the 500 kids aged 5 to 17 polled said they did not read books for fun before they started reading the series. A little over three-quarters of them said Harry Potter had made them interested in reading other books."

So, even in the reporting of inclinations, the results of the the surveys are mixed.

Why, then, the misleading headline from The New York Times? (If a student came in with a story like this for a university newspaper I was advising, we would have a long talk.)

Maybe the Times was basing its headline on an interview reported in the story with an avid Harry Potter reader, Kara, who concluded, "I probably won’t read as much when Harry Potter is over."

Well, that's rock hard evidence that Potter magic is having a "limited effect," isn't it...

Here are the facts:

Academics and guardians of our literacy have been unhappy about the course of our popular culture for more than a hundred years (see Harry Potter and the Refutation of Illiteracy for references). They started their attack on motion pictures, then moved on to television, and most recently the Web.

Harry Potter came along and knocked their unfounded fears for a loop - as The New York Times correctly reports, "the series has sold 325 million copies worldwide, with 121.5 million in print in the United States alone."

In the process of providing highly enjoyable reading for hundreds of millions of people, J. K. Rowling has written in letters across the sky: literacy is alive and well and thriving.

All you have to do is write a story that people enjoy.

Enjoy a 15-minute (free) podcast: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: The View from New York

See also about Harry Potter:

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: A Review, for Starters (Mild Spoilers)

Harry Potter and iPhone

The New York Times Spoils Harry Potter - A Little, But Still Too Much

Harry Potter and the 3-D Phoenix movie review

Harry Potter and Spoilers: An Occasion for Basking

Harry Potter and the Refutation of Illiteracy
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