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Harry Potter And His Refutation Of Illiteracy

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As we move into the two-months-and-counting phase of the time in July when the final Harry Potter novel will be published, I thought it time to once again proclaim what I've been saying ever since the first Harry Potter book broke huge some ten years ago: the extraordinary success of Rowling's books should shut down, once and for all, the claim that we live in an illiterate age.

The sales of these six novels have been extraordinary – nearly 90 million in the United States alone, another 36 million in the U.K., for a total of 270 million copies in 62 languages worldwide, including Latin and Ancient Greek (hey, someone should go back in a time machine and give a copy to Plato).

And these novels have been more than bought and skimmed – anyone I've ever seen with a Harry Potter novel has been totally engrossed, bubbling and eager to discuss the most minute and profound points in the book. Harry Potter's readers are not only legion, but literate, and highly so.

Not that this will convince the ghostly critics who lashed out at motion pictures nearly a century ago (see my book, The Soft Edge: A Natural History and Future of the Information Age, for details), and their descendants who did and are doing the same about television, the Internet, and even texting on cell phones: all of which are said to be dishing out a "vast goo of meaningless stimulation" (this from Harper's editor Thomas Zengotita), which render us callous, senseless, dumb, illiterate, and, for the worst like Jack Thompson about video games, even violent.

Never mind that. Even before Harry Potter and his magic, literacy rates had been holding steady in the age of television, and book sales had even been increasing (see The Soft Edge for figures). The proposition that photochemical, electronic, and now digital media are eroding our minds has always been an article of faith, subject to refutation by neither common sense nor hard evidence.

But, oh, I'm looking forward to the beach this July. To the copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows that will be on so many blankets, in so many hands. Each will whisper, to any academic who ever underestimated the power of the human intellect, to anyone who ever doubted the thirst for good narrative in every generation… in a chorus of millions and millions… you're wrong, you're wrong, you're wrong.

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About Paul Levinson

  • ernie

    Wait, you think that huge sales of Harry Potter prove we are still literate? In the strictest sense of the word [able to read] perhaps. In the ideal sense [possessing literary sensibilities], you have written your own refutation.

  • http://viewpointjournal.com David Flanagan

    Paul,

    I think you make some very good points. I’ve said to those who like to talk about all the “crap” that exists out there today, especially in TVland that, “yes, there is a lot of crapt, but there is also a lot of great stuff too.”

    And, while I haven’t looked at the data, you’ve got to think that the growth of companies like Amazon, Borders, Barnes & Nobles, and other major book retailers, as well as the activity you see from publishers, is a good sign. There are just things you can get when you read a good story that you cannot get in any other way.

    I’ve always said that the closest we’ll ever get to reading the mind of another person is to read what they write.

    So, while it’s true that there is a lot of “meaningless stimulation” out there, I think it’s also true there are more meaningful books, movies, television shows, etc., than ever before. As a parent, I think my greatest challenge will be more to help my kids to become consumers of the good than anything else.

    Regards,

    David

  • G

    I’m not exactly sure that “literacy rates” are really a good standard to go by. In america, literacy has been holding steady at something like 98%-99% — that’s because of compulsory education where being able to read is one of those necessary things. However, just because someone can read doesn’t mean that they do read. I know plenty of high school aged people who, when asked, can’t recall they’ve last read a book for anything other than class.

  • Joel

    Most ancient Greek philosophers would probably turn their noses up at novels, since writing things down supplants our need to remember them. They predicted an erosion of memorization skills when literacy came into vogue, and look: hardly anyone can recite the Illiad anymore! (I’m only half serious.)

  • http://paullevinson.blogspot.com Paul Levinson

    ernie wrote: In the ideal sense [possessing literary sensibilities], you have written your own refutation.

    Why, thank you – being a follower of Karl Popper (Conjectures and Refutations – the gist is which knowledge best progresses by refutations …) – I’m flattered that you think I have streamlined this process by writing a self-refuting little essay…

    Cf. also Bertrand Russell, and Douglas Hofstadter (Godel, Escher, Bach)…

  • http://paullevinson.blogspot.com Paul Levinson

    Dave wrote: And, while I haven’t looked at the data, you’ve got to think that the growth of companies like Amazon, Borders, Barnes & Nobles, and other major book retailers, as well as the activity you see from publishers, is a good sign. There are just things you can get when you read a good story that you cannot get in any other way.

    I’ve always said that the closest we’ll ever get to reading the mind of another person is to read what they write.

    Excellent points, David – especially the last, which is worthy (seriously) of being a frontispiece on your blog or book…

  • http://paullevinson.blogspot.com Paul Levinson

    G wrote: I know plenty of high school aged people who, when asked, can’t recall they’ve last read a book for anything other than class.

    So? I know plenty of high school students who, when asked, can tell me about their 10 favorite books, with detailed plot summaries and astute analyses.

    Meanwhile, take a look around the web sometimes – you’ll see dozens of sites in which kids are happily talking blue streaks about the most minute Harry Potter details..

  • ernie

    I get it, Paul. You’re an intellectual, albeit a pedantic one (I’ll get right to that Godel, Escher, and Bach), who also enjoys an occasional splash in the pool of crapola that is known as the world of Harry Potter. Would that everyone who read Rowling’s utterly derivative piffle also read Bertrand Russell. However, the fact that the former is held up by your literate masses as good writing is sad testimony to the validity of my point, although a hindrance to the streamlining process of your self-refuting little essay.

  • http://paullevinson.blogspot.com Paul Levinson

    You’ve got me 100%: I’m an intellectual, albeit.

  • http://paullevinson.blogspot.com Paul Levinson

    Oh – and ernie? – you’re the first I’ve ever seen who uses Hofstadter as an example of pedantic. Try irreverent, iconoclastic, that kind of adjective …

    Have you read any Hofstadter, by the way?

    Come to think of it, have you read any Rowling?

    I of course have no proof, but I would be that you haven’t.

  • ernie

    OK, maybe my ad hominem attack was unwarranted, ALBEIT justified. Just a knee-jerk reaction to your high-handed sarcasm.

    I read the first Harry Potter when I was trapped in a rural Chinese town with nothing else printed in English at hand. I’m a long-time fan of fantasy and science fiction, yet my gorge was never lower than half-way up the throat throughout the ordeal.

    I’ll spare you [and myself] an extended dissection of how depressingly derivative and ill-conceived the whole mess is. And I won’t begrudge you your optimism concerning today’s youth. I’ll only close by pointing out that, having tutored hundreds of teens in the past ten years, not one in ten could work his way through Lord of the Rings. Twenty years ago, even a few jocks in my middle school enjoyed it. Apples and oranges? The same applies to today’s ADDled youngsters and those of yester-year.

  • http://paullevinson.blogspot.com Paul Levinson

    ernie wrote: OK, maybe my ad hominem attack was unwarranted, ALBEIT justified. Just a knee-jerk reaction to your high-handed sarcasm….having tutored hundreds of teens in the past ten years, not one in ten could work his way through Lord of the Rings.

    That’s ok – being high-handed is one of my specialties (better than being low-handed…)

    But you must have tutored a very atypical group of teens. I spend a lot of time in Barnes & Nobles, and Borders, and independent bookstores around the country – doing readings and signings of my science fiction novels, starting with The Silk Code in 1999 and The Plot to Save Socrates today.

    And you know what? Science fiction and fantasy often live on the same bookshelves. They’re stocked and tended by the same bookstore workers. And they all told me – we’re talking over a hundred bookstore workers, at least – that when Harry Potter hit, Lord of the Rings started flying off the shelves (and of course even more so with the movies).

    So, be my guest, and be as pessimistic as you like. Just don’t confuse it with reality.

  • ernie

    Reality: Pizza Hut sold nearly 168 million Pan Pizzas in 2007.

    Paul’s spin: To anyone who ever doubted the hunger for good cuisine in every generation… in a chorus of millions and millions… you’re wrong, you’re wrong, you’re wrong.

  • http://paullevinson.blogspot.com Paul Levinson

    What wit…

    Though, actually, there are worlds of difference between foods for thought and foods for eating…

  • ernie

    Glad ya liked it. Worlds of difference? In both cases, bad taste is bad taste, no matter how much money or hype is involved.

  • http://paullevinson.blogspot.com Paul Levinson

    Hey, I read Harry Potter and loved it – all the books – no hype involved.

    But, then again, I also love pizza…

  • ernie

    Hold on, Paul; I just googled you. You’re a Fordham professor and published author? That means you’re smarter than me, I mean than I, and more literarily adept than I, yet you still like Harry Potter.

    OK, what am I missing? The diaphonous character development? Rowling’s masturbatory melodrama dripping from every page? Enlighten an amateur, if you would be so kind.

  • http://paullevinson.blogspot.com Paul Levinson

    Not necessarily smarter, just more accomplished, and I suspect I’ve had a longer time to get there …

    But as to your question:

    First, I don’t think the first two novels are extraordinary, except as Young Adult literature, which is a special category. So when I say I “loved” them, that was closer to loving a picture that your son or daughter brings home from school, rather than standing in front of a Manet and loving it.

    But beginning with the third novel, I found myself really drawn into the story, inhabiting the minds of the characters, caring about them the way I care about heroes of Asimov’s robot stories and Herbert’s Dune.

    And the last two novels, while not as good as the very best science fiction and fantasy, packed quite a punch, in addition to being endearing.

    How’s that for starters?

  • ernie

    Good enough, I guess, thanks. But I think I’ll pick up The Plot to Save Socrates and leave Potter to the short-pantsed. Wish me luck: I live in Beijing, and Amazon always assumes my credit card is being used by bookish Asian gangsters.

  • http://paullevinson.blogspot.com Paul Levinson

    Much as I love Harry Potter, I won’t argue with you about that reading choice…

    If you do want to get The Plot to Save Socrates from Amazon, I’d be happy to extend to you (and anyone else reading this) an autograph offer I’ve made elsewhere: any one who buys a copy of The Plot to Save Socrates on Amazon (or elsewhere), and would like it autographed, just have the novel sent to me. I’ll autograph and put in return mail to your address (including, in your case, Beijing) at no additional expense to you. I’ll be doing this until June 1.

    If you’re interested, just email me at my last name dot first name at gmail – for my address.

  • http://harrypotterforseekers.com Hans Andréa

    Ernie wrote: “You’re an intellectual, albeit a pedantic one, who also enjoys an occasional splash in the pool of crapola that is known as the world of Harry Potter. Would that everyone who read Rowling’s utterly derivative piffle also read Bertrand Russell.”

    Before I read ‘Harry Potter’ I used to think that. Like many people I thought that anything that was that ‘pop’ular must be rubbish. Until I started reading the books.

    I agree the books may not be the best ‘literature’. But to my utter amazement I have found the presence of a secret code, hidden under all the excitement, mystery and suspense. Being thoroughly versed in alchemical and Rosicrucian symbolism I recognise the secret foundation of ‘Harry Potter’. This is a radiant spiritual symbolism telling a timeless and universal story that resonates in the collective unconscious of humanity, explaining the books’ popularity. This story and this symbolism can be summed up in the term: ALCHEMY.

    Let me cite part of an interview with JK Rowling in 1998, just before Book 3 was published: “I’ve never wanted to be a witch, but an alchemist, now that’s a different matter. To invent this wizard world, I’ve learned a ridiculous amount about alchemy. Perhaps much of it I’ll never use in the books, but I have to know in detail what magic can and cannot do in order to set the parameters and establish the stories’ internal logic.”

    This small column is obviously too restricitive to explain this in detail, so I would very much like to invite you to visit my website, specifically designed to explain the alchemical symbolism in Harry Potter.

    On my Book 7 Page, I have listed my predictions. I have found 11 alchemical clues which really make it quite obvious where Book 7 is headed.

    To back up my belief that I have discovered the spiritual foundations of Harry Potter, I would like to cite two quotes from interviews with JK Rowling that I’ve found on Internet:

    “Rowling said she couldn’t answer the questions about the book’s religious content until the conclusion of book seven.”

    “If I talk too freely about whether I believe in God I think the intelligent reader, whether 10 or 60, will be able to guess what’s coming in the books.”

    As I say, ‘Harry Potter’ may not be the world’s best ‘literature’ as such, but it packs enough spiritual power to change history. In the right direction. In fact, in my opinion ‘Harry Potter’ is the best thing that has happened in the world for many, many years. How better to infiltrate the human consciousness with the power of good than by letting it seep into the subconscious minds of millions and millions of children all over the world?

    Feel free to call me insane, but remember, you first read it here.

    Hans Andréa
    Haarlem
    Netherlands

  • ernie

    Paul, a generous offer that I can’t take advantage of – ordering Amazon from Beijing with an American credit card has proven nothing short of Kafkaesque.

    Hans, you’re not insane, but perhaps unaware of the mythic resonance [which can often fairly easily be interpreted as Alchemical symbolism] that suffuses any brick-n-mortar adventure story.

    Everyone from Cinderella to Luke Skywalker undergoes the same ritualistic rigamarole to ascend the pyramid under the gaze of the all-seeing eye, attaining self-realization and benefiting society as a result. I’d recommend The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell to temper your awe for Alchemical symbolism.

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