Just ran across this opinion piece by WaPo book critic Ron Charles which doesn't exactly blame Harry Potter for the death of reading, but, then again, doesn't think Harry mania has helped.
(A)ll around me, I see adults reading J.K. Rowling's books to themselves: perfectly intelligent, mature people, poring over "Harry Potter" with nary a child in sight. Waterstone's, a British book chain, predicts that the seventh and (supposedly) final volume, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," may be read by more adults than children. Rowling's U.K. publisher has even been releasing "adult editions." That has an alarmingly illicit sound to it, but don't worry. They're the same books dressed up with more sophisticated dust jackets -- Cap'n Crunch in a Gucci bag.
I'd like to think that this is a romantic return to youth, but it looks like a bad case of cultural infantilism. And when we're not horning in on our kids' favorite books, most of us aren't reading anything at all. More than half the adults in this country won't pick up a novel this year, according to the National Endowment for the Arts. Not one. And the rate of decline has almost tripled in the past decade.
I love to read and have since I was in elementary school (I still remember how grown up I felt when I finished Little Women--all 500 pages of it--during the summer between fifth and sixth grades). Both my husband and I are avid readers. All the parenting books and magazines will tell you that if you want your children to read, they have to see you reading. You have to read to them when they are young. You have to keep books available to them.
Don't believe it.
I've read to my children literally since they were born. I still remember reading the editorials to my oldest daughter between colic bouts (maybe the editorials caused them? Who knows?). Oldest daughter also was read to on a nightly basis until around third grade when she was expected to read for herself. We've always had mountains of children's books around, thanks to my mother-in-law who likes to clean out the children's book section of Half Price Books every couple of months. And my husband and I read in front of our children. A lot. I've even taken to reading books I loved as a child to my younger children the past couple of summers, even though the kids can read quite well for themselves. So it isn't like they haven't been exposed to the love of reading.
None of my children exhibit the same enthusiasm for a good book that I have. My son is currently mildly fascinated with the books of Beverly Cleary (he finds Ribsy and Ralph S. Mouse particularly interesting), but neither of his sisters has the reading bug.
According to Charles, I'm not alone in noticing this phenomenon.
Unfortunately, the evidence doesn't encourage much optimism. Data from the NEA point to a dramatic and accelerating decline in the number of young people reading fiction. Despite their enthusiasm for books in grade school, by high school, most kids are not reading for pleasure at all. My friends who teach English tell me that summaries and critical commentary are now so readily available on the Internet that more and more students are coming to class having read about the books they're studying without having read the books.
When I was in high school honors English, in my wild rebellious youth, I decided I wasn't going to read any of the books assigned to us my senior year (I despised Heart of Darkness, and considered it my personal albatross, given that every English course I took in college seemed to require its reading). I managed to ace the course through a combination of CliffsNotes, long conversations with less rebellious friends, and the incompetence of the teacher. I haven't yet told my oldest daughter this story since I don't want to give her any ideas nor dispel the notion that I truly was a model student.
But these days, students don't have to read the books or go through a series of gymnastics to garner enough information about the assigned books to pass tests. There's so much info on the internet that, as Charles notes, students simply feel no need to read Great Expectations or To Kill a Mockingbird or The Odyssey.
Why aren't children reading? Well, my best uneducated guess would be that there are so many other things for them to do that reading has gotten crowded out. There's 24-hour cartoon and children's show channels, video games and computer games. Reading takes effort to get a level of imagination going; turning on a video game, even something as mundane as Harvest Moon, is less work and more visually appealing.
Charles also lays the death of reading at the feet of the mass book marketing machine.
According to a study by Alan Sorensen at Stanford University, "In 1994, over 70 percent of total fiction sales were accounted for by a mere five authors." There's not much reason to think that things have changed. As Albert Greco of the Institute for Publishing Research puts it: "People who read fiction want to read hits written by known authors who are there year after year."
I confess that I read known authors, usually tearing through an entire series and then going on to the next (currently, I'm reading all the Richard Jury novels at present) like a pack of locusts through a field.
But the piece Charles misses in his lament is that people who do enjoy reading do it either for information or for pleasure, and, since we are no longer in school, we may not feel compelled to read Bleak House.
Matthew Yglesias wonders why Charles disses Harry Potter fans when they are, at least, reading. I tend to agree. I like the Harry Potter books not because I expect to learn some universal truth but because I believe J.K. Rowling weaves an interesting tale. And evidently, millions of readers agree with me.