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.