The ‘Harry Potter’ Myth

Harry might distract the kids from the screen for a while, but he won't make them better readers.

There is a boisterous belief among certain teachers and librarians that kids, through reading J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, will become strong readers and will eventually take up more difficult, loftier works by writers like Dickens, Austen, Shakespeare, etc. This is, unfortunately, utter nonsense. As the venerable Harold Bloom points out in an op-ed piece regarding the Potter books, “[Rowling’s] prose style, heavy on cliche, makes no demands upon her readers. In an arbitrarily chosen single page–page 4–of the first Harry Potter book, I count seven cliches, all of the ‘stretch his legs’ variety.” I have to agree with Professor Bloom: there is simply nothing in Rowling’s writing that in and of itself will improve students’ reading abilities, certainly not to the point that they will be able to handle the much more masterful writing styles of Dickens and Austen. True, Rowling’s books get kids reading, but that means nothing when they are finished with the series and turn back to their video games and iPhones. Reading Harry Potter will in no way prepare kids to read any classic text–novel, poem, or otherwise–and most certainly will not prepare them to read important and incredibly dense texts  like the “fine print” of college and job applications, business contracts, health insurance information, etc. The books simply will not make kids better readers.

This is going to sound incredibly biased and arrogant coming from an English teacher, but here it is: the only way students will become better readers is through, well, being taught how to read difficult texts. For all of the daffy, Latinate words and names Rowling created, her books and not difficult texts to read. Scan the first page of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and then read the first page of Great Expecations: you will feel like you’ve taken a gulp of water and immediately followed it with a gulp of a hearty full-bodied wine. With a teacher by the students’ side to teach them how to navigate the precarious waters of a Dickens novel (or an Austen novel or–for that matter–any text deemed either “classic” or “difficult” [or both]), the students will become better readers. Now let me be frank in pointing out that this “teacher” needs not be a teacher by profession, but could in fact be a parent, a friend, a librarian, etc.–someone who knows how to read difficult texts and is willing to enlighten others with this know-how. But you cannot expect to give a Potter book to a student who is reading at or around grade-level (i.e., late-elementary school or above) and watch him or her transform into an avid reader by the series’ end. Our culture is just not set up to create readers out of children. If I were to go up to a random student–especially a male student–and ask him what books he likes to read for pleasure, I’d probably get no verbal response but instead a sympathetic look that means to say, “Poor old thing–thinking I actually read for fun.” This is not to say that I think these younger generations of children are incapable of reading for pleasure; rather, I believe they need to be coached how to read for pleasure. Side-stepping Potter and instead giving the kids strongly-written children’s books like Alice in Wonderland or even The Hobbit is a start. Those are books that will help shape Dickensian readers out of our children.

Let me close by professing my obsessive, heartfelt love for the Harry Potter series. My wife and I have been Potter-philes since at least 2001; we even ordered two copies of the last book so that we could read it at the same time without having to fight over it. The series’ narrative is astonishingly engrossing–mostly, to be fair, because it is chock-full of archetypes that have engaged audiences since Thag first pulled up a stone beside the cave painting. There is Harry, the hero-king; Dumbledore, the wise old mentor; Ron and Hermione, his faithful retainers; and Voldemort, the nemesis-demon. Even Harry’s wand–which is substantially special in that its mate is Voldemort’s wand–is one in a long line of special heroic weapons, like Arthur’s Excalibur and Aragorn’s Anduril. So you see, there is literary merit in Rowling’s books; but this honorificabilitudinitatibus will not by itself make better readers out of students. I see much in common between Harry Potter and the Star Trek franchise, for those TV shows and movies are awfully fun to watch and certainly do have moments of inspired brilliance; but viewing them does not in any way prepare audiences to understand or appreciate more complicated films like Vertigo, China Town, or even the sci-fi masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bloom states in his review of Sorcerer’s Stone that the Potter phenomenon is a fad that will eventually die out, and I think he’s right on this. The hype surrounding Rowling’s books will eventually subside, though it isn’t likely to happen any time in the near future, particularly with at least two more Potter films slated to come out (parts 1 and 2 of the film adaptation of the 7th book in the series). Sometime in the future, people will look back on Harry Potter like they do on, say, Max Headroom. (Who?!) Call me a heathen if you must, but it’s true: Harry and his 7-year-long battle against Voldemort will eventually not matter to readers young and old around the world. What reasoning could I possibly give for such blasphemy? Let me come back to Rowling’s writing: its mundaneness will ultimately lead to its erasure from the pop culture map. Why do you suppose it is that works by Dickens, Austen, Shakespeare, etc., have persisted? They are, like the Potter books, engrossing; but they are also well-written. Readers can come back to them years after initially reading them and find a new point about life or human nature, or perhaps even a passage that now takes our breath away that years before we may have glossed over. Rowling doesn’t afford us either of these pleasures with her books: she gives us one truth, and there’s no arguing with that truth in the manner she provides it. Thus, reading Harry Potter will not by itself make better readers out of children. The books themselves, however, might make interesting family heirlooms to pass down to future generations as examples of what people used to like back when.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to see if the trailer for the next Potter film has been posted yet.

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12 thoughts on “The ‘Harry Potter’ Myth

  1. Your library repertoire should be like your diet: it requires the basic food groups, with your ‘treats’ all in moderation.

    The Harry Potter series should be one of your “guilty pleasures”…like a piece of chocolate. Fine to ingest, as long as it is part of a bigger and better diet.

    Since the majority of readers dread eating their veggies, I would consider those to be Shakespeare. You may dread him at first, but you feel better and proud after ingestion.

    Within the same family of food, fruits would be your poetry: sweet little snacks that are good for you.

    Magazines, newspapers, blogs, etc., are your “granola bars”: little snacks that curb your afternoon hunger without all the calories.
    The meat, of course, would be your Melville, Hemingway, Dickens, etc., full of protein that is necessary for muscle building…but there may be some bones left over.

    Lastly, your self-help series or text books are the grains: filling and hearty carbs that fill you full of knowledge.

    As most nutritionists will tell you, a well-balanced diet is the most beneficial.

  2. The Harry Potter series is a real good series of books, but as a student, i surprisingly agree with your post. Reading Harry Potter will not help a student become a strong reader. I only read six of the seven books in the series, and I can tell you, it did nothing but get my nose in a book.

    and as much as I hate reading stuff like Dickens or Hemmingway, because I cannot understand a word of it that well, it helps.

  3. I have to say I disagree with some of what you said. Sure, the books don’t get kids to read, but I do think it can help with other things. For instance, the first time I came upon the word “impervious” I had no idea what it meant, but I figured it out. How? In one of the HP books, Hermione uses the spell “impervio” on Harry’s glasses to keep the rain off so I figured out that impervious would mean impenetrable. Which it does. Since a most of the spell play off of English words (ex. expelliarmus – expell, crucio – excruciating) they can help kids understand new words.
    -Liz

    • Actually, the spells derive from Latin words (these Latin words just happen to have modern English derivatives). For example, the English word you mentioned, “impervious,” comes from the Latin word, “impervius”; “impervio,” Rowling’s spell, is just the singular dative or ablative case of the adjective. Likewise, the spell “crucio” is the 1st person singular of the Latin verb for “to crucify” (literally, “to put on the rack”), so saying “crucio” means “I crucify!” So you see, in most cases, Rowling didn’t even have to create the names for the spells, but rather just used the original Latin words. (Sometimes she just “tweaked” the Latin word, as in the case of “expelliarmus,” which has no exact Latin equivalent, though we can safely say it derives from the Latin word, “expellere,” meaning “to drive out”.)

      I’m glad the books have helped to better your vocabulary, but really any book can presumably do that (which is why we English teachers are always happy to at least see kids reading!). Truly classic books, however, will better your life–or, at least, that’s the theory. 🙂

      Unfortunately for Harry, I still don’t think he’s got what it takes to last. He’s just one in a LOOOOOOONG line of heroes that goes back even before Odysseus.

      Thanks for the comment! See you soon.

  4. On the part where you say Harry Potter is gonna die out…I think you’re right. I can’t find anything significently memorable in most of the books, and if a book is at least slightly entertaining (or, at the very least, time consuming) but not memorable, it will die out in popularity.

  5. This kind of nonsense they said about books of Dumas and Salgary in their time. But THAT is the real clisé. People like Bloom is too much elitist when speak about literature and his view about it is too stiff and dogmatic. He (and many of us) have forgot that literature is playful too, and people like he hate to admit that they have failed to ignite a love of reading the classics in young people, as do books like Harry Potter. Instead, they prefer to look down on those who don’t think like them.

    • Bloom’s (and my) problem with Harry Potter is not it’s playfulness: simply put, these books will not make children better thinkers or readers. Thus, all of those “quick-fix” teachers and librarians out there who tout the Potter books as the saviors of the struggling adolescent intellect are sorely mistaken. It isn’t a matter of “thinking like” anyone — there are strong readers and thinkers, and there are those who read only for the “exciting parts.” Surely, the latter is not acceptable — imagine society if it were: we’d have a plethora more Kardashian and Jersey Shore clones than we already have; yikes!

      But to say that Bloom has forgotten that literature is playful is quite incorrect: he would quickly point you towards Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, whose nonsense stories and poems have nurtured the intellects of young people for generations. These writers are great for children, if for no other reason than that they are playful. Sure, the plot of Potter is fun, but it’s execution is so abysmally trite that you quite literally cannot read it for anything but those exciting parts.

      Let me conclude by point out, again, that I love those same exciting parts — but I also recognize them as brain candy. My point in this essay was (and still is) that teachers and librarians need to stop touting these books as the solution to our adolescents’ disinterest in reading. My six years of teaching have actually proved my point: for while “struggling” readers may momentarily get hooked on reading Potter, they quickly lose interest in it as soon as they finish; the same is true of the Twilight books, incidentally.

  6. It is my personal belief that the Harry Potter books should be used as a gate way to build better readers. Certainly, the books themselves will not teach someone to become a better reader, nor will they challenge a reader who does not wish to be challenged but used in discussion these books are wonderful.

    Your main argument seems to be that readers should be taught to read difficult texts and it is these difficult text that will make better readers. But, in what sense is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland a difficult text? It was designed for children and thus it can be read very simply. It only becomes a difficult text when discussed. A reader will not read this from a post colonial view if they are not taught too and they will not pick up themes of innocence if they are not taught too.

    In comparison, the Harry Potter series can also become a difficult text when discussed properly. It is loaded with themes, symbols, and many literary devices and if a reader is taught how to decipher these elements in the first book they may just start deciphering them all on their own in the later books and thus strengthen their reading ability. Additionally, although the books do approach most serious matter in a very playful matter that does not mean that they can not be discussed in a very serious manner or that they are not very serious subjects altogether.

    I want to leave off with a quote by Lewis Carrol about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

    “”I’m very much afraid I didn’t mean anything but nonsense. Still, you know, words mean more than we mean to express when we use them; so a whole book ought to mean a great deal more than the writer means. So, whatever good meanings are in the book, I’m glad to accept as the meaning of the book.”

    My point being that if you choose to look for nothing you will find nothing but if you choose to look for more than you will find it.

    Lastly, please excuse my spelling and grammar as it is very late at night.

    • Thank you for your response. Alice is a “difficult text” not because of the storyline, but rather because of the way it is written. The diction is witty and the riddles and wordplay in general are legion. Rowling’s prose, in comparison, is heavily cliched and offers nothing to the budding intellect. You can apply any type of criticism that you’d like to either of these texts, but that does not itself make the writing intelligent and useful to the new reader. “Good writing” — or “difficult writing,” if you’d like — consists of diction and syntax that does not fit inside the confines of “normal use,” that is, word choices and sentence structures that are not “copied-and-pasted” from other authors. Novelists can be “Dickensian,” “Hemingway-esque,” or even “Melvillian,” but they shouldn’t be Dickens, Hemingway, or Melville. Every writer’s voice should be unique and individual; thus there is the difference between Rowling’s writing and that of a stronger “YA” writer like Markus Zusak (The Book Thief): Rowling’s voice is mostly unoriginal, with only a few flashes of idiosyncrasy. She is mostly Dickens and Tolkien (who himself was an unoriginal mash-up of Dickens and the Beowulf poet) transposed into trite contemporary language, but she is very rarely Rowling. Returning to Alice: if you look at Carroll’s writing voice, it is very much his own — in fact, I can think of few precursors besides the “mad” poetry of Shakespeare and Blake. Read even today, his texts are still his own: they have not been overwhelmed by stronger voices.

      Readers should not need to discuss a text to find its complexity; they should be able to recognize this on their own. If you like Alice as a child, you will probably like Alice as an adult; but when you return to the text in later life, you will find things you missed the first go-round; when you return to Harry Potter in later life, you will find exactly what you found the first time. This type of writing does nothing for the mind, for it does not make the reader a stronger thinker and it certainly does not make the reader a stronger writer. That Harry Potter is full of archetypes is beside the point: Star Wars is as well, but I would not recommend watching those films in lieu of reading complex and satisfying literature.

  7. I agree with the points raised by “Insert clever name here” and Ricardo.

    The works of Shakespeare, Dickens and Austen are generally venerated as ‘great’ or ‘high quality’ literature and this view has cemented their place in the modern Western literary canon. While I agree with Michael Kneeland’s high opinion of these classical texts, I disagree with the view that the ‘Harry Potter’ books have little to offer in comparison.

    It is also worth noting that the novel was considered by many Victorians as a much ‘lower’ and less intellectual form of literature than Biblical scripture, epic poetry or the plays of Shakespeare and Chaucer that comprised the contemporary ‘classical’ literary canon of their culture. In fact, most scholars regarded novels as little more than a source of light entertainment. Ironically, Michael Kneeland’s criticisms of the J.K. Rowling’s novels echo these kinds of sentiments.

    Michael Kneeland’s arguments seem to be predicated almost entirely on the notion that classical literature is more ‘difficult’ for less experienced readers to understand, simply because it is more sophisticated and complex and requires more advanced reading skills. As an English teacher, he is aware that written and oral language, as well as literary conventions, change and evolve. As such, anyone who wishes to read a historical (or classical) text, in any kind of depth, must gain a reasonable understanding of the form of language that was used in that particular period. Additionally, she/ he will need to study the social and historical context of the work.

    For example, most students are not conversant with the archaic dialect of English used by Shakespeare; they will require additional notes and teaching to enable them to translate its meaning. I studied ‘Othello’ at A level, I was fortunate enough to have a truly inspirational and knowledgeable teacher. Through her excellent teaching, I learned to appreciate the wit, richness and complexity of Shakespeare’s language and to understand and recognise the use of nuance, humour and foreshadowing in the play.
    I don’t decry the genius of Shakespeare’s work but its reputation as ‘high culture’ literature tends to overshadow the wonderfully bawdy and hilarious wit of many of his plays. I seem to remember hearing that much of this humour was designed to appeal to poorer and less educated members of the audiences. These people were able to understand such witticisms and puns, not because they had more ‘highly developed’ reading or literary skills, but because they spoke that particular dialect of English and were familiar with that culture.

    I realise that J.K. Rowling’s work is somewhat flawed by the occasional plot hole, inconsistency, cliché and, in particular, her overuse of the plot device known as ‘Deus ex Machina’. However, the same criticisms can also be applied to some of the greatest classics. I’ve read that even Shakespeare’s plots were based on other stories he had encountered and I would argue that similar themes and tropes tend to reappear in contemporary works from the same culture.

    As “Insert clever name here” observes, J.K. Rowling’s novels contain a diverse array of themes, historical and cultural resonances and ‘intertexual’ references. As a literature graduate, I would argue that the books provide plenty of scope for intelligent literary analysis. J.K. Rowling reinterprets themes, symbols and archetypes from classical literary traditions, thereby making them more accessible and recognisable to younger and less experienced readers. For instance, J.K. Rowling’s use of prophesy is consciously ‘borrowed ‘from ‘Oedipus Rex’ and ‘Macbeth’.

    • “I studied ‘Othello’ at A level, I was fortunate enough to have a truly inspirational and knowledgeable teacher”. This sentence should have been “When I studied ‘Othello’…” but I accidentally deleted the word ‘when’.

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