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Urban Rhythms

The Trouble With Harry

By Wiley Hall III | Posted 11/21/2001

Harry Potter, eh? You wanna talk about Harry Potter? Here's my verdict: I read the book. Found it boring. I might catch the movie if it ever airs on free television--provided I've nothing better to do. The real question is why the rest of you got so caught up in the Harry Potter phenomenon.

Harry Potter is the hero of a series of books by English writer J.K. Rowling. Harry is an orphaned child living in modern-day England who suddenly discovers he is the son of powerful wizards who were murdered by an evil sorcerer. The first volume in the series, 1997's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, chronicles Harry's life at an English boarding school, with its usual run of bullies and absent-minded professors. The twist is that this is a boarding school designed to train up-and-coming young wizards. More than enough elements, one would think, for wit and whimsy.

Many did think so. The Potter books have been such titanic bestsellers that The New York Times created a list just for children's books (and as of Monday Harry Potter books occupied its top three spots). Sorcerer's Stone won numerous U.S. and U.K. kid-lit awards, including a National Book Award, the Smarties Prize, the New York Public Library Best Book of the Year, and the Parenting Book of the Year; it was even short-listed for the Whitbread children's category, one of Britain's most prestigious fiction prizes. The movie version opened Friday and set a record for weekend gross, $93.5 million.

The book just doesn't work for me, though. The language didn't soar. The story didn't surprise or delight. And even though the denizens of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry all had absurd British names like the kindly Professor Flitwick and the dark Professor Snape, I found those characters flat, one-dimensional, and all too predictable. In short, I disagree, almost point for point, with everything that people have been saying about the series.

The true classics of children's literature have sly wit, deceptively simple story lines, and such flamboyant characters that they live on long after you've closed the covers. Their language is so lyrical that when you read them aloud to your kids--as I've done countless times--the words melt like honey on your tongue. C.S. Lewis' Narnia chronicles, The Wind and the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh stories, E.B. White's Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little, T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone, L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz--these have withstood the test of time. As far as I'm concerned, Harry Potter doesn't even come close.

So where did this phenomenon come from? What does its sudden popularity mean?

At first I suspected that we are being victimized by a media conspiracy to force this product down our throats. While we were sleeping, our friendly family-owned newspaper and TV stations morphed into sinister mega-conglomerates, so vast and far-reaching that it is nearly impossible to determine which is allied with which. General Electric owns NBC, which has formed joint ventures with Cox Communications and Microsoft. The Walt Disney Co. owns ABC along with 10 TV stations, four cable networks, 21 radio stations, two publishing companies, and a major movie studio. Westinghouse owns CBS. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch owns Fox, and Ted Turner's cable empire merged with the Time Warner one, which has since merged with AOL. Each of the major newspapers and newspaper chains have merged or formed joint ventures with broadcast, Internet, and entertainment outlets.

With all those multiple interests, how can we trust any reporter who raves over any product, be it movie, novel, or breaking news event? It's entirely possible that reporters themselves no longer really know who they're working for or what hidden vested interests shape their stories.

The conspiracy theory doesn't explain the Potter phenomenon, however. If the media conglomerates could, through only their own labors, turn a particular product into an overnight sensation, they'd do it for everything they produce.

Journalist Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference hints at another intriguing possibility. Gladwell describes how "social epidemics" mimic biological epidemics both in cause and effect. Just as a single sick person can start a flu epidemic, he asserts, the right person at the right time can launch a new social fad. In Gladwellian terms, a book is embraced by influential decision-makers in a given community (the media, booksellers, educators). That endorsement spreads by word of mouth, reinforcing and amplifying the marketing campaign until the book's popularity reaches critical mass, the "tipping point." And all of this has to happen at a time when people were primed for it.

In the end, though, we probably don't need media conspiracies or social theorems to explain Harry Potter's success. The answer is probably much simpler: The masses are asses. Always have been. Always will be. There's just no accounting for the tastes of donkeys.

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