Harry Potter and the Half-Assed Social Commentary

I was fairly nonplussed about the new Harry Potter book coming out, but the package tracking from amazon.com has gotten me back around to plussed. I pre-ordered it, more out of laziness than omg omg i’ve got 2 know what happens!!!! excitement. I kept seeing promotional countdowns all over Borders and Barnes & Noble, and then Amazon politely recommended that I pre-order it, since I’ve bought (and read, usually all in one session) all the other other ones. So I figured instead of fighting crowds of slobbering, pimply people in wizard hats, and the children who’ll be buying the book as well, I’d just have it sent to me and read it at my leisure (pronounced to rhyme with “pleasure,” of course).

In almost-but-not-quite retrospect, that may have been a mistake. Going for convenience is missing the point almost as much as the trite and curmudgeonly op/ed pieces written by this bloke and this one. They hit all the usual marks when people write about Harry Potter: it’s excessive hype, bookstores open at midnight, sales are beyond comprehension, Pope spoke out against it, a Canadian supreme court issued gag orders on people who bought early copies, it’s a cultural phenomenon even though the books aren’t really all that good, but Rowling gives to charity so she’s all right, and there’s adults reading it as well as kids, and hey look I’m getting my book too so I’m just as guilty as anyone else isn’t life funny? Those columns don’t really provide any new insight other than to dispel the notion that British people are inherently wry.

Yes, it’s good that the books encourage kids to read. That’s every bit as true now as it was when the first one sold eighteen bajillion copies. But it’s amazing how quickly commentators take the easy way out — snap some pictures of a kid in horn-rimmed glasses and a wizard hat reading a book on the floor of a bookstore, mention how Rowling’s made a metric assload of money, talk about “religious” groups protesting the book, and you’re done, like Groundhog Day. What’s much more interesting is seeing how these pop media releases turn into such huge events.

It’s easy to say that it’s all advertising and marketing and publishers and book-chains and media outlets building up hype. But that doesn’t give the fans enough credit. The DaVinci Code sold a ton of copies but didn’t have people making such a big show of their purchase. Fans, even really young ones, are more media-savvy than that, and they wouldn’t be dressing up and going to bookstores unless they wanted to be part of an event. Even if this book somehow ends up being more profound than any of the previous ones, the kind of book that changes a child’s life forever, the experience of actually reading it won’t be as memorable as going out and just being there with dozens-to-hundreds of other people who are all shameless fans of the same thing. It’s why people stood in line for hours to see Revenge of the Sith — whether the actual “product” was any good was pretty much irrelevant. Being there was what was important.

And for the record, I don’t think Rowling gets enough credit. It’s easy to pont out how much money she’s made and dismiss it as just another example of easily-accessible “mass entertainment” prevailing over True Art, while begrudgingly making concessions about charity and the magic of a child reading. But there’s a lot to be said for writing something that appeals to such a wide age range. Great literature? Maybe not. But they do have messages about family, friendship, responsibility, and staying true to your principles even at the risk of being popular. And they exist as more than just marketing vehicles for some trading card game (all the product promotion came afterwards). And what’s better, a competently-written book that reaches millions of people, or an important work of literature that everyone means to get around to reading someday but for now we’d rather just sit and play Pokemon?

3 thoughts on “Harry Potter and the Half-Assed Social Commentary”

  1. I don’t think the social commentary in HP is ‘half-assed.’ It is taken down to the gradient at which a young child can understand it with a bit of reach, and is a way for children to think about such things without scaring the living bejeus out of them. It’s that way because that’s the appropriate gradient, and we need things for children so that they can bit by bit confront the harder stuff when they get older. We have a planet mared with social issues that will take us awhile to solve and some of these “children” now are the same “adults” later that will have to help with this when we are gone.

  2. The “half-assed” in the title was referring not to the Harry Potter books, but the media coverage of the books’ releases.

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