Register Thursday | June 20 | 2019

Harry Potter and the Completely Obvious

Why J. K. Rowling isn't single-handedly responsible for the surge in teen reading

The final numbers are in and, unsurprisingly, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was one big-ass motherfucker of a triumph. It sold 9 million copies in the US and the UK in twenty-four hours, had the most Amazon pre-orders ever and made 100 million bucks in its first two days, a figure that beat the combined American box-office gross for that weekend. Half-Blood Prince had the largest-ever first printing at 10.8 million copies (a second print run of 2.7 million was rushed before the book was even released), occupied the No. 1 spot on Amazon for a full year before it was even available for purchase and had kids queuing up at five-thirty in the morning on the day of its release. The only other books that come close to Half-Blood Prince's numbers are previous Harry Potter volumes.

There's no doubt in anybody's mind that this Harry Potter business is a bona fide phenomenon. And where there's a phenomenon-particularly one that involves adorable moppets in wizard robes-there's a "societal impact." With Potter, from the very beginning, the "impact" angle the media have adopted has predominantly been that J. K. Rowling is getting our children reading again. Pre-Potter, the mainstream media had spent a lot of time dismissing "kids today" as over-medicated, slack-jawed television addicts. Cranky pundits took turns predicting the imminent death of reading, newspapers, the publishing industry and American literature-pundits, naturally, being the extant authority on taste and educational trends.

This literacy death watch isn't a recent phenomenon. In her memoir The Virgin of Bennington,poet Kathleen Norris recalls a 1961 reading given by Norman Mailer at the 92nd Street Y that rather offended William Kolodny, then a high-ranking member of the Y's staff. Kolodny was reported to have slammed the curtains shut during the performance, angry that people were laughing at Mailer's dirty jokes. An editorial about the incident remarked that Mailer should be glad that "people still react, however wrongly, to words."

One can certainly find earlier examples of hand-wringing over the state of book appreciation, but I honestly think that this contemporary pro-reading trend is throwing some folks for a loop. The explanation that most critics seem to be going with is that J. K. Rowling is in possession of some sort of magic, and that her language has bewitched children into enjoying the written word.

Don't get me wrong-I'm an enormous Potter fan. I think Rowling is a wonderful writer with a good ear for dialogue and a knack for creating suspense. I cried my little heart out when you-know-who killed you-know-who-else. But to give one writer credit for changing an entire generation's mind about books-something the government, Reading Rainbow and Sesame Street have been trying to do for years? Well, that seems a little silly.

Instead, think for one second about what else could have impacted the thinking of ten-to-fourteen year-olds en masse. What word-based public medium has radically restructured the behaviour of the entire species over the last ten years? Yeah-the Internet.

Thanks to the development and cool-ification of instant messaging, SMS, e-mail, blogging, social networking sites and discussion forums, the ability to read and write effectively is now integral to interacting with one's peers. Sure, none of these newfangled items require good grammar or proper spelling, but we have reached a point where it is now nearly impossible for anyone in the developed world to fully socialize without basic literacy skills. Consider bloggers, for whom linguistic cunning alone wins readers and recognition. For the first time ever, being an avid reader and clever writer could conceivably make you a morepopular teenager.

I'm not just making this up. According to the most recent US Market for Tweens and Young Teens-a report issued by MarketResearch.com-eight-to-fourteen year-olds are becoming "increasingly disinterested in watching television, and more and more distracted when they do watch it." According to Don Montuori, acquisitions editor of MarketResearch.com, this is because "the Internet, in particular, offers a compelling alternative to TV programming." In other words, Harry Potter is not an isolated incident-without meaning to, we've found a way to convince younger people that reading is indeed fundamental. Like Fawkes rising from the ashes, reading for pleasure is back in vogue.

Book love isn't the only surprising effect of the World Wide Web. To quote Kevin Kelly in a Wired article about the early days of the Internet, "Everything media experts knew about audiences-and they knew a lot-confirmed the focus group belief that audiences would never get off their butts and start making their own entertainment. Everyone knew writing and reading were dead; music was too much trouble to make when you could sit back and listen; video production was simply out of reach of amateurs."

No one, and especially not the talking heads, foresaw bloggers and LiveJournal.com. Nobody imagined a self-appointed task force of citizens reporting from the front line of a tragedy. But, well, here it is. Even post-bubble, especially post-bubble, people are surprising pundits with their interest in and ability to create and connect. The lesson? Average people are not nearly as lazy or as stupid as market research makes them out to be. Humanity is a social, creative, participatory breed, and for once we've made even MarketResearch.com admit it. We may just be muggles, but we're muggles who blog.

Audrey Ference tries her darndest to keep up with what the kids are into these days. Her column appears every two weeks. Read other recent columns by Audrey Ference.