Thursday, July 19, 2007

Here, Here Matt!

Matthew Yglesias mounts a stirring defense of Harry Potter in the face of aimless meandering bleatings by people like Ron Charles about "the death of reading".

I for one agree with him. The critics, I think, keep on missing one thing: that Potter has absolutely nothing to do with the decline in reading. Heck, in terms of reading straight fiction, it's not about "declines" at all; straight fiction has never been as popular with kids, and even adult males, as genre fiction. Harry Potter only reconfirms that, since Harry Potter is (horrors!) genre fiction, a combination of urban fantasy and the classic boys-away-at-school stories that people have been reading since before television was even an option.

(That doesn't mean they aren't reading, it means they aren't reading what you think they should be reading.)

Charles moaned that children expect toys and movies and all manner of hype to go along with their books, thanks to the Potter thing. One problem: that really didn't appear until the Goblet of Fire hype. Philosopher's Stone and Chamber of Secrets sold well because they were, well, really good children's books; the latter books (which are moving away from being children's books and becoming more straight up fantasy) are selling well partially because of the hype, yes, but also because they happen to be pretty slick fantasy, up there with (to name current fantasy series) George R. R. Martin's phenomenally successful "Song of Ice and Fire" series and Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time".

(Actually, Potter is significantly better than WoT, but I digress.)

To the extent that reading has declined, though, it still has nothing to do with Potter. Potter didn't stop kids from reading. Heck, if you think about it, kids read more than ever, thanks to these here Interwebs, and are probably far more comfortable with the actual act of reading text for pleasure than their parents are. No, they aren't reading because nobody else is. Kids imitate adults, especially their parents. If adults aren't reading around them, they're pretty quick to pick up the idea that reading isn't a normal, mature thing to do. If their parents are watching TV, and all their adults peers are watching TV, then they'll probably end up watching TV.

(Except they aren't- they're playing video games and hanging out on the Internet. TV viewership numbers are dreadful. But I digress again.)

If you want kids to read, you can't force them, and you most certainly cannot attack their choices when they do read. If they want to read Potter, or R.L. Stine, or whatever else, they should. If it's bubblegum for the mind, more power to it, because it's that much more likely to make them readers when they mature and want something more. But at the same time, you (yes, you, the person reading this) should be reading too, especially if you have kids. Read to them, read alone, and maybe turn off the TV yourself, because they aren't going to be impressed if you convince them that reading is something you do to your kids, or force your kids to do, but would never do yourself.

They don't want to be kids: they want to be adults. If adults don't read, you can't blame them for picking up on that. And if they read anyway, despite their parents not doing so, because of J. K. Rowling, then a toast to Rowling, because she pulled off what all the well meaning (but utterly nonsensical) attempts to force "great literature" down kids' throats cannot... she made them want to pick the book up in the first place.

Edit: Go read this piece by Michael Berube, about his son Jamie (who has Down's Syndrome; Michael's stories about him have really changed how I thought about Down's, by the by) and his engagement with Potter. It's a PDF, so be warned, but it's still a great, great piece on Potter.

One more edit: There is a special place in Hell for those who spoil the surprises in children's books. You know who you are. KNOCK IT OFF.

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