"Paul Levinson's It's Real Life is a page-turning exploration into that multiverse known as rock and roll. But it is much more than a marvelous adventure narrated by a master storyteller...it is also an exquisite meditation on the very nature of alternate history." -- Jack Dann, The Fiction Writer's Guide to Alternate History

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Harry Potter and the Refutation of Illiteracy

As we move into the two-months-and-counting phase of the time in July when the final Harry Potter novel will be published, I thought it time to once again proclaim what I've been saying ever since the first Harry Potter book broke huge some ten years ago: the extraordinary success of Rowling's books should shut down, once and for all, the claim that we live in an illiterate age.

The sales of these six novels have been extraordinary - nearly 90 million in the United States alone, another 36 million in the U.K., for a total of 270 million copies in 62 languages worldwide, including Latin and Ancient Greek. (Hey, maybe I'll write a scene in my sequel to The Plot to Save Socrates, in which a time-traveller brings Plato a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopoher's Stone, translated into ancient Greek!)

And these novels have been more than bought and skimmed - anyone I've ever seen with a Harry Potter novel has been totally engrossed, bubbling and eager to discuss the most minute and profound points in the book. Harry Potter's readers are not only legion, but far more literate than many people decades their elder.

Not that this will convince the ghosts of critics who lashed out at motion pictures nearly a century ago, and their descendants who did and are doing the same about television, the Internet, and even texting on cell phones: all of which are said to be dishing out a "vast goo of meaningless stimulation" (this from Harper's editor Thomas Zengotita), which renders us callous, senseless, dumb, illiterate, and, for the worst of the quacks like Jack Thompson about video games, even violent.

Never mind that, even before Harry Potter and his magic, literacy rates had been holding steady in the age of television, and book sales had even been increasing. The proposition that photochemical, electronic, and now digital media are eroding our minds has always been an article of faith, subject to refutation by neither common sense nor hard evidence.

But, oh, I'm looking forward to the beach this July. To the copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows that will be on so many blankets, in so many hands. Each will whisper, to any fool who ever underestimated the power of the human intellect, to anyone who ever doubted the thirst for good narrative in every generation ... in a chorus of millions and millions ... you're wrong, you're wrong, you're wrong.

Enjoy a 20-minute (free) podcast on this subject: Light On Light Through

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

Further reading:

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

Harry Potter and Obama

Harry Potter and iPhone

The Elite Attack on Harry Potter

Harry Potter and the 3-D Phoenix movie review

Short History of Ludicrous Claims About Violent Media my 2007 blog post

Harry Potter Spoilers as Occasion for Basking

Only Idiots Don't Watch Television my 2006 Newsday op-ed

The Soft Edge: A Natural History and Future of the Information Revolution my 1998 book


YZF said...

Great sentiments, and lovely last sentence. Can't wait for July.

Paul Levinson said...

:) thank you! should be good summer, indeed...

Anonymous said...

I was a voracious reader when I was a child. I read the classics. Hard cover. Small print. Yellowed pages.

The Harry Potter books emerged just as I was leaving my adolesence. As an adult with a science career, I haven't had time to read fiction as I did when I was younger. The ONLY written fiction I've afforded time for as an adult has been the Harry Potter series.

I'm afraid if it weren't for those books, I would have to say I hadn't read any fiction in ten years. I think I might be typical of many 20-somethings.

Paul Levinson said...

I sometimes go years without reading a novel - especially when I'm busy writing one. But the Harry Potters were ones I made an exception for, too...

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