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Monday, June 9, 2014

Was the Popularity of Harry Potter Just a Passing Fad?

          Okay, so I had to come up with some attention getting title.  So why not use the Harry Potter phenomena?    I've never read any of J.K. Rowling's books and I'm in no big hurry read them, so I guess I can't make any sound judgment as to how good they are.  Perhaps you've read some or all of the Potter series and are an avid fan.  Or maybe you hated them.

          Let's go back a ways and think about William Shakespeare.  Is his work great from more of a scholarly or historical perspective?   Is he a sentimental favorite just because?   Or do you often read his plays and poetry?   Did he even write all or any of them?

         I rather enjoyed some of the more recent filmed versions of Shakespeare such as Romeo + Juliet, Coriolanus, and Titus.   I've read one of those plays but not two of the others.    But I have read a  number of Shakespeare's plays and while I can say there was much I appreciated about the writing and the stories are good, I can't say that I derive great pleasure out of reading those plays.

         Same goes for Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.   I understand there is the significance in regard to literary history, but it is seriously doubtful that something written today in that style would get more than a handful of readers and I doubt whether any of those would say that they liked what they read if they actually read it.

           The complexity of style and lack of lucidity in the writing is undoubtedly a deterrent in the ability for many to enjoy deeper works.  However, no intellectual investment on behalf of the reader may make much escapist literature highly forgetful.   If a book or story is merely enjoyable entertainment that does not make us dwell on any significant message, is the work of any value besides a temporary escape?

          Why do we like to read what we read and why do we think certain written works are "good"?

           Part of this undoubtedly begins in childhood.   If we grow up in a storytelling culture, have an environment that includes the written word, and are encouraged to read, then I think there is a likelihood that we will enjoy reading and pursue reading as we grow older.  What we read is to a great extent determined by what we have been exposed to in the home and in our educational setting.   The influence of our peers can have a great deal to do with the reading that we choose.

         This is an oversimplification of course and I am probably stating the obvious, but I think that this mostly holds true.  If we read regularly then we become better readers.  If we challenge ourselves with deeper reading materials with more complex writing, more diverse vocabulary, and more profound ideas then our reading will probably inclinate in search of more materials of a similar nature--that is if we enjoy reading those books.

         Many of us probably avoid reading what we don't enjoy unless we're doing it for school or some lofty personal reason.   I've found that many books that I've found to be difficult to struggle through were rewarding in the end and after having studied about the book to where I understood more about the writer and the times in which the book was written I often appreciated the book all the more.  Other books were so tedious to me that I never made it through them.

           Another important aspect of reading preference relates to whether a book is relevant to one's thinking, worldview, and ideologies.   Flannery O'Connor is one of my favorite writers not only because she writes with eloquent simplicity, but because she delves into the subject matter of spirituality, grace, redemption, and the corruption of the human soul.  She writes what I want to read about in a style that entertains me.

             On the other hand I think about Herman Melville's Billy Budd, written in a more complex nineteenth century style and yet telling such a compelling story that it has stuck with me even though I read it only once and that was forty years ago.

           Then there is one of my favorite short stories Descending by science fiction author Thomas Disch.   I read this when I was in high school and it immediately became a favorite then and remains so now.  The story of a guy trapped on a department store escalator that is eternally descending is a story too philosophically delicious for me to ever give up on.   This is my kind of story.

           Coming to any absolute conclusion in one blog post is not something that I am going to achieve.  Not in this blog post at least.   There is still so much for me to ponder on the subject.  Can I say I like to read books that are relatively easy to read?   I do, but then again I've read some books that are considered difficult that I liked very much.   I avoid romance books so I haven't read many, but I enjoyed Pride and Prejudice a great deal.

            But I still probably will never read any Harry Potter books because it just doesn't sound like a concept that would interest me.  Sure, you might call me stubborn, but that might be another aspect of why we have preferences--sometimes we're just so hardheaded about something that we resist liking it and we never give it a chance.

            What are the main reasons for your not liking certain kinds of literature?    Do you challenge yourself to read literature that you have perceived to be difficult?   Do you like the Harry Potter books?   Have you read any of  the Harry Potter books?   Do you think the Harry Potter series will have lasting literary value?

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  1. As you may or may not know, I read very widely. And like you, what I read depends on what interests me.

    So yes, I have Canterbury Tales on my kindle waiting to be read this year. Last year I read some old middle English Ballads for research of one of my own books.

    As for your question on Harry Potter... Yes, I think it will leave the same sort of literary legacy as Lord of the Rings did. And that said, it doesn't mean that anyone HAS to read them.

  2. I have to mention, since that was the point of my paragraph on the subject: I greatly enjoyed reading the middle English.

    So much so that I dreamed in middle English rhyme for days after finishing the ballads. :-D

  3. I've never read any of the Harry Potter books either - I've just seen the movies. Probably won't ever read them.
    It's a rare literary classic that I actually enjoy. I do like some Dickens and Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. And Edgar Rice Burroughs of course.

  4. There is one challenging and complex book I do return to on a daily basis though - the Bible.

  5. I haven't read Harry Potter either but I know people who have enjoyed those books a great deal. What I like depends on my mood at the time. There are some books that I struggled through initially but eventually grew to love (like Beloved and Tristram Shandy) but in all honesty I don't seek out books that wear me out mentally. Lately I've enjoyed Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I also really enjoyed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

  6. I read every Harry Potter book and liked them well enough. I'm not certain how the revitalized world of Ms. Rowling's will fare with her new trilogy, though.

    I was absolutely in love with Shakespeare at thirteen. After a summer affair, however, we parted. It was for the best.

    I do read widely, even if certain genres aren't my "thing". You never know what's out there if you don't.

  7. Misha -- So this leads me to wonder if you enjoyed reading the Middle English because you gained a better understanding of it and primarily "like" it from an academic standpoint or in the same sense that you would like a book that you would consider a favorite. I will be interested to hear how you feel about Canterbury Tales. Are you reading them in the original Old English style or will it be a modernized interpretation?

    Alex -- I've yet to see any of the Harry Potter films either--not surprising I guess. The Holy Bible is one book that is worthy of repeated reading and study.

    Quanie-- Sometimes the mentally challenging books require getting into a reading rhythm and acclimation to the style. I think Faulkner is like that. Once I've started getting into the book then it becomes less difficult as I continue on. But I agree that some books are so tedious that it's not enjoyable to read them at all. Some of the difficult books are best read as part of a literature class or reading group where there is discussion and aside studies that illuminate what is being read.


  8. Jennifer -- I think it is helpful for anyone--especially a writer--to read widely and to occasionally return to favorites as well as books that weren't appreciated on the first time around.


  9. I do like to challenge myself to read outside my usual interests. I liked Harry Potter as a reader though I'm not crazy about the series. I love Harry Potter because it turned my second son onto reading when he was very young and he's been hooked since.

  10. In my long years I have read Tolstoy, Dostoyevski (sp), Shakespeare, Dickens, Scott, Austen, Clavell, and many more. I only read one Harry Potter as I bought it for a friend's son, I enjoyed it though and have seen most of the movies. I also read the Narnia books and am enjoying the movies. These days I mostly gravitate to science fiction and fantasy, not interested in romance books loaded with explicit sex. Unnecessary IMHOP. However, I do enjoy a good romance.

  11. I'm open to reading almost anything. At least I try. I may not finish a book for whatever reason, but I like to see what different authors try in different genres and categories.

    If the writer gives me 1) a character(s) I can empathize with or even hate 2) intrigues me with the question of "What's going to happen?" or 3) sends me over the moon with brilliant, mellifluous prose I stick with their story.

    I fell in love with Faulkner when I was high school and I'm not quite sure what his appeal was. His topics? Certainly The Sound and the Fury's "plot" wasn't uplifting or comforting. His style? I had a devil of a time figuring out when or where something was happening in most of that story. Yet, I fell into it.

    I chose to bring up Faulkner because, you mentioned how a complex style and a lack of lucidity might deter readers from enjoying a body of work. Even with all of the roadblock Faulkner threw at me, after all these years, I think about Benjy, his mentally incapacitated character and how the author created him out of nothing but words and a disjointed timeline.

  12. I don't like books that don't have engaging characters and an interesting plot, or books that care more about trying to sound poetic than actually telling a story. Therefore, I don't like most books written prior to the 1940s. I don't perceive any books to be "difficult." If they're tough to understand they're flawed as far as I'm concerned (although large amounts of people probably disagree). I have read all of the Harry Potter books and thoroughly enjoyed them. Granted, I was ten years old when I finished the series and I hadn't read a whole lot prior to those books. I really dislike the phrase "literary value." To me it's a hoax. Different books work for different people. I rate a book's strength based upon character, setting, and plot, but they're all subjective, so other people may rate the same books differently. If the question is "will they last?" than, yes, I believe they will. Ninety years from now they might even be called "classics" knowing "literary types" who somehow believe that few books written within the last hundred years are worth our time.

  13. Well I'm a total Potter junkie so I am still very involved in that fandom. VERY involved. I even make Potter themed crafts for myself because I was sorted into Ravenclaw on the Pottermore website.

    I've been reading since before kindergarten, and I started K when I was 4. I already had my own library card. I'm not as voracious a reader as I used to be. But a word on the so-called classics. They have got to be the most boring books ever. I want to like Shakespeare, but SNORE. Same with all the other literature classics you are forced to read. I got as far as 'call me ishmael' in the book Moby Dick, and opted to watch the Greg Peck movie instead. I almost failed one semester of English b/c I abjectly refused to read Silas Marner because I couldn't even get past the first page. If I am not interested, nothing's gonna force me into reading it. I offered to read 5 books AND do reports on them if she'd just excuse me from Marner. lol I only passed the class b/c my teacher knew I was a reader and I wasn't just blowing it off. I do like Nathanial Hawthorne though. But Dickens? Not so much, but for Christmas Carol. I WANT to like them but I'll take fantasy and young adult any day.

  14. Harry Potter is long enduring. I just finally bought book one last week. The only one I hadn't bought (borrowed it from a friend but bought all the others).

  15. I might debate whether Edgar Rice Burroughs' qualifies as a literary classic (per Alex's comment), but I think it is a better comparison to Harry Potter than Shakespeare.

    Another good comparison might be Tolkien's Lord Of The Rings trilogy.

    Both were the fiction of their day, and both seem to have demonstrated staying power (still in print after a century).

    I am sure harry Potter novels are still in print, but we're talking half a decade later, and I wonder whether a lot of kids are discovering these books.

    I've never read one myself, but while I have read Tolkien several times over, I do not know if I would read anything of that genre at this point in my life-I'm simply less willing to embrace fantasy than I was as a teen.

    Which is why I've never given Potter a try (I found the first movie to be more than enough).

    Shakespeare is a tough read, no doubt-but every plot in every book is captured in his works (in the book Alex mentions, too, for that matter).

    The other classics require effort as well, but they provoke thought. I would doubt that Harry Potter provides much more than an escape (similar to Burroughs'). That is not necessarily a bad thing, however.

    Not to knock the many writers who follow your blog, Lee, but to paraphrase what a certain Todd said about popular music, "every book that ever will be written already has been."

    So no need to debate the merits of the classics. Time will tell whether Harry Potter endures.

    I doubt Shakespeare is going anywhere.


  16. Hey there Lee!
    I've been out of contact with the blog world lately. I zoom in and out. Well, I decided to stalk blogs today and this blogpost of yours got me thinking.

    Many times the books that we choose to read are the ones that are best-sellers or recommended by many people.Unless we're avid book readers who have learned to live in a world of books since hey were kids. So, apart from exceptions, the books 'known' to be good are certainly titled as being good too.

    I for one enjoy all kinds of works. Apart from ones with a much romantic genre. Started reading when I was hardly 8 years old and have been reading since. Just opened P.G. Wodehouse's work the other day and it's amazing.

    So, the true goodness of a book is not measured by what common mass thinks. Each book's goodness is actually pretty personal to a reader. One might love the book while the other might dislike it.

    Take care! :)

  17. There are a couple different reasons for not liking a particular book for me, though I wouldn't say I have a problem with any genre.

    Dislike #1- It's just dry. Hard to read. Henry Kissenger's White House Years was fascinating- until it became repetitious.

    #2- It is bloated by material that is just not necessary. Stephen King's Tommyknockers is the prime example. You could have cut 650 pages out of the middle of an 800 page book and not missed a thing.

    #3- It's boring. I know I'm about to commit a sacrelege but Catcher In The Rye is #1 on this list. I kept on reading, hoping to find what everyone liked about that book, but never did.

    #4 It's just plane stupid. I got about halfway through Rabbit Is Rich and threw it in the trash. Something I'd never done with another book. Poking through your host's dresser drawers to look for naked pics of his wife. Really? If Holden Caulfield woulda done that, maybe he would have been more interesting.

  18. Susan -- It's been cited by many that the Harry Potter series got a lot of young people to start reading, but was that part of the faddish nature? Did kids mostly start reading because everyone else was? I wonder if the kids who were enamored with Potter will pass their love for the series to their own kids years from now?

    Jo-- I'd much prefer to read the good old fashioned kinds of romance.

    C.Lee -- Totally agree with you about Faulkner. He writes in his own special style that becomes not so complicated once you've broken his stylistic code.

    Patrick -- When I think of "literary value" I'm considering writing that will be studied in schools and university studies in the future. Will Dickens, Hemingway, or Faulkner continue to have relevance or with they be replaced more by John Irving, Jonathan Franzen, or other modern writers? Time will tell I suppose. Shakespeare has certainly held his own.

    JoJo-- I think motivation has a lot to do with our reading. I had to read Dickens, Shakespeare, and others in high school--we discussed them and I came to appreciate them. Many of those seemingly boring books from the past can be very interesting if we are in the right frame of mind to read them. Attitude is everything when it comes to what we read, actually finish, and remember.


  19. I've not read the Harry Potter books, but I have seen the movies, at the behest of someone who DID read all the books. Knowing I like fantasy and wizards, she insisted. I liked the later movies best, when Harry is older.

    I've challenged myself to read a couple of authors I previously avoided and changed my mind about them in doing so. Over the last few years my reading boundaries have extended to cover a wider variety. That's due to reading blogs.

  20. Sheena-kay-- Harry Potter has held out for a while, but I wouldn't call it "long-enduring" yet. Let's give it another 10 or 20 years. Then how about another 100 years after current generations of readers are gone and there is no longer any sentimental attachment to the books.

    Larry -- The thing about Shakespeare and other long read writers is that they deal with classic themes with application to us in our time. They are universal and timeless stories. Do the Potter books possess material on that kind of scale? But like you say we won't be able to come to the final verdict on the Potter stories for many years.

    Lubaina -- Good to hear from you again! You are so right about the personal nature of preference and that is the point of my current series of posts. Good point about how word spreads about books. In our age communication and media hypes books and other arts to the extent that we are sometimes blinded to quality and accept things on the basis of popular appeal. That's a good thing for the creator of a viral product, but of questionable good to the artistic community.

    CW -- You make some good points though I might disagree with you on Catcher in the Rye. I had a similar attitude to yours as I was reading and right after I finished. But the book stayed with me for a long time until something clicked with me regarding it. It still seems overrated to me from my current perspective, but I can see how it would have had impact when it was initially released and for young people in the 60's or 70's. By the 70's profanity and immorality was so accepted and prevalent that Catcher seemed rather simplistic and naive. But the book did hit me with a message--don't know if it was the intended message, but I see it as a warning against the gratuitous use of profanity.


  21. In the eighth grade, my class was assigned to read Lord of the Rings. It was pure torture for my Dyslexic ADD brain.

    But I loved the recent movies.

  22. Like with a lot of things I came to really enjoy (don't know why this is, looking back, honestly :-P), I resisted reading Harry Potter for a while despite how much my mom was pushing me to check into it. I finally had to bite when the first movie came out and I had to satisfy my curiosity.
    I remember exactly that as of page 12-13, I was hooked and a fan ever since. Somehow I forgot my mom mentioning that Harry's parents were killed.

    But I owe a lot of that series and I feel bad for anyone missing out on it. What I owe: I was never really a fan of reading. I connected with one or two authors that visited my elementary school (David Adler and his "Cam Jansen" series, and Elvira Woodruff) but I mostly read non-fiction animal books.

    Harry Potter provided the spark I needed to carry on my own writing beyond fanfiction. And because I kinda had to fill the void after the series ended, I just got hooked on reading YA book series in general. Most of them because they were getting movie adaptations and I wanted to be able to keep up, lol.

  23. I am a huge fan of Harry Potter books, mostly because of it's sheer creativity. I love books that transports me to another world. Science Fiction is my fav. genre and Hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy is a series I still am crazy about. Of late I am challenging myself to read classics like Les Miserables and Anna Karennina. The later is so intense that I had to read lighter novels in between :)

  24. Morning Lee, I've never read Harry Potter nor seen the films. As to whether it will have lasting value, who knows? The world of magick is here to stay it seems evidenced by vampires, sci-fi et al ..

    Many a book has been pressed upon me which I had no desire to read and after a month or so, I returned it to the person. But they said hold onto it longer - and when I finally did read them, o what a pleasure. Sometimes, I sort of know by page 50 or so that I don't want to go any further, but if I persist, I am surprised and delighted.

    I read widely in all sorts of genres. There was a time I read only non-fiction but getting back into good novels was such a treat!

    Descending by Disch sounds like my kind of read ...thanks for pointing this out.

    I like a book which is challenging and allows me to project myself into the story.

  25. A book that endures has to have a universal theme, something that people can relate to no matter what the generation. The problem with most older classics is the generation gap in the language. Writing changes over time, and the distance between writer and reader can make reading those books difficult. I'm a big Lovecraft fan, but since most of his work came out 80+ years ago, the language can be hard to follow. You really have to concentrate.

    It's too soon to tell if Harry Potter will endure. I've never read the books, so I couldn't tell you.

  26. Shelly -- The movies were really long, but I guess not as long as reading the books.

    Jackie B-- The Potter series did spark some reading and writing I guess, but I don't feel much like I've missed anything.

    Rajlakshmi--I like to alternate between light and heavy reading as well.

    Susan Scott -- Sometimes I just have to be in the right mood for a story to catch hold. There have been times when I didn't like a book and go back later to reread it and like it immensely.

    L.Diane -- The language can be a huge barrier. That's why I think it sometimes helps to read the book in the context a class or some similar situation. The reader also needs to be willing to apply the focus necessary to get into what is being read. It's usually been worth the effort for me. Great books endure for a reason just as insignificant books disappear for the reason that they are not good.


  27. I try to read a variety of books, though non-fiction and horror are the main things I avoid. My life is filled with plenty of non-fiction drama to keep me occupied and horror scares the heebee-geebees out of me.

    I think that the Harry Potter phenomena was a little more than a fad and will have lasting literary value. Each story was a piece of a whole, each delivered using basic archetypes that have been around forever (example: Star Wars vs Harry Potter - Luke = Harry as "the One", Princess Leia and Han Solo = Hermione and Ron as the best friends and biggest supporters of "the one", both orphaned and raised by other familiy members, both with powers far more special than they realize). The literary values of plotting and scene planning can be explored on muliple educational levels if one were to sit down and dissect the writing. In the end, when I read Harry Potter (and loved it!!) it was for entertainment.

  28. Great post Lee. You doing what you do best. Presenting food for thought.

    I don't have time to start reading a book and then find myself hoping that it will eventually draw me in.
    I HATE books that feature style over substance.

    Harry Potter does nothing for me, but maybe 50 years ago, I would read them, to escape. Will the Harry Potter series have lasting literary value? Other than being a huge money maker, to me, it doesn't have much now, much less later.

    Tolkien has gotten a couple of mentions in these comments. I don't think it is fair to compare The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings with Harry Potter. Tolkien was SO FAR ahead of his time, in so many ways. Plus, it is literary art. Having said that, if it wasn't for the 1960's and 1970's, his works would likely be all but forgotten now (by the public). Of course, like many things, reading is a very personal thing.
    “I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo.
    "So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

  29. I haven't read any of the Harry Potter books, nor do I intend to. The main reason being is that I'm simply not a big fan of YA. I've read YA for contractual book reviews, but beyond that, I make a conscious effort not to read them.

    Most of the popular sci-fi books from teenage years (Lords of the Rings, Hobbit, 1984, etc.) never really appealed to me on any kind of level.

    The same goes for poetry. Poetry does nothing for me. To me, poetry is just a decent short story and nothing else.

    About the only genre I really detest is Literary. I think I can boil it down to a couple of reasons.

    1} Too formulaic. Almost every single literary fictional story I've read, IMHO, looks and sounds the same. While prose may be strong, it doesn't do anything for me. It doesn't make me care about the characters or the plot or anything.

    2} Condescending. I also get a strong feeling that the writer is talking down to me. I'm not sure if it's because every single writer has an MFA, is a college professor and has an IQ in the mid triple digits, but I always go away feeling like that I've been seriously insulted.

    Father Nature's Corner

  30. Angela --No doubt that HP had entertainment value for many readers. We'll have to revisit this topic in 50 years see what the outcome is.

    Pat-- Good comment. If a book has style as well as substance that I think that makes for a great book. Faulkner was like that. Or Henry James. I think much pre-1940's literature seems highly literary because that's more the way writers wrote back then. It sometimes seems strange to read but once we adapt to the style it's not so bad--at least for me that is.

    GB-- I never thought of most poetry being compared to a short story. Good poetry evokes images or feelings. I agree that poetry can sometimes be a difficult reading experience, but it really depends I guess.
    I wouldn't agree with you about your assessment of literary fiction. Some may be like you describe, but much that I've read I enjoyed. I don't feel like I'm being talked down to either. Sometimes the writing is beyond me or tedious, but I think it's more a matter of style that the attitude of the author.


  31. I've also never read any of the Harry Potter books. I really enjoyed reading Ragtime, which I picked up after I saw the play. They both were hugely entertaining, and I really think it would appeal to you with your Vaudeville background.



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