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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


Anonymous said...

i don't really see why its supposed to make a difference either way. its supposed to be entertaining and thats exactly what it is. If a kid doesn't enjoy reading for fun 1 book is not going to change that. They might pick up that book and read it because they want to know what happens next but I don't see how that is supposed to change there reading habits.

Anonymous said...

I am 34 years old and cannot remember enjoying reading a book after high school, or during high school for that matter, UNTIL Harry Potter came along. Those books have caused me to fall in love with reading for the 1st time ever.

I am now one of those people who are bursting with anticipation waiting for 7.21.07.

Paul, I also can't wait to hear your thoughts on year 7 at Hogworts.

I also recently read "Catcher in the Rye" for the 1st time. None of my friends read, and no one cared how great I thought it was.
For a book that is relatively short, it was a great ride.

I wonder if you have ever heard about or read "Battle Royale" by Koushun Takami. A book I have to recommend.

Paul Levinson said...

Welcome to Infinite Regress - Ben and anon -

I'll be picking up copies of Hallows at 12:01 at the Barnes & Noble - 3 copies (one for me, one for my wife, one for our daughter - our son will be picking up his copy in the city) ... and I'll be reading, more or less non-stop, all weekend ... should be fun...

And as soon as I finish and collect my thoughts for a few seconds, I'll post them here (marked spoilers)...

Sven said...

Hello Paul.

I do have to agree with you when you question the accuracy of those statistics - if only because I am weary of those researchers telling us what we really think... I know a lot of people who really like the Harry Potter series, including my father, my 15 year old sister and me and I do know that it inspired them (and me) to read on as the books kept coming. But does that really affect the rading habits outside of Harry Potter? Or will it rather drive you into the cinema to see how they realise the material visually? Or make you buy a Potter(y) Coffee Mug?

In this day and age the competing influences are many and (often) great, so that reading is going to have to share with other media influences - and I agree with the asessment that the complaint of ardent readers that people (especially children) do not read enough is not a new one. It remains fact that internet and audio-books do involve literary skills - and cannot be shunned simply because of their not being literature!

It is - in the last resort - a very personal preference that has to be chosen on a personal level. I am a very ardent reader myself and always glad for material that spawns more of our circle of readers, but frankly I do not understand why it has to be so pushed onto others. If they want to read - good - if they want to frequent other media - also good!
(just think of all those great TV series that are - albeit visually - so poetic, complex and enriching!)


Paul Levinson said...

Good to have your comments again, Sven - I agree with every word!

Anonymous said...

Hello there, greetings from Sunny Jhanna.

In my humble opinion, if society wants children to read more, I don't know why all the pressure should be carried by the shoulders of just one writer, Mrs. Rowling in this case.
The problem is with society itself, and with the education the new (and old) generations receive from it.

By the way, I have never read any HP books, but I'm looking forward to do it, now that the saga's end is near. Waiting to see how a good story ends is like torture to me.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Paul,

Just wanted to drop a line to tell you that I'm not going to read the books for a while (I find that I have been spoilt for them by the generally very good movies), but that I am following my girlfriend's progress through the Deathly Hallows with great interest.
I am observing her with a perhaps inappropriately scientific focus on her emotional highs and lows and the affect that the book has on our week, and tracking it through Twitter on my website sidebar.

Obviously this isn't a particularly worthwhile use of the technology (or my time), but I thought you might get a kick out of it.

Same place as usual, "nixsight"

Alexi Frest said...

Nothing can be more disappointing than seeing supposedly serious and educated people (here the colleagues of NYT) bring an author down because of jealousy. They act not only silly, they are at the level of a three-year-old child "why did the other kid got a lollipop and I didn't?".

Paul Levinson said...

Well said, Mina. Welcome to Infinite Regress.