TOPICS > Arts

Harry Potter Books Spark Questions About Reading

July 20, 2007 at 6:25 PM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: Once again, Harry Potter has cast a spell.

K-K BRACKEN, Harry Potter Fan: I’ve read the whole series 198 times.

HARRY POTTER FAN: I don’t think a week has gone by without me calling someone up and discussing Harry Potter theories.

JEFFREY BROWN: Around the world today, fans were lined up for the release — at 12:01 a.m. Saturday — of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” the seventh and final installment of author J.K. Rowling’s saga. At this bookstore in central London, Potter maniacs had been gathering for two days.

HARRY POTTER FAN: I’ve come from Sydney, Australia, because you have to come to London for Harry Potter. You can’t have the last book in this amazing series come out and you not be in the place where the home of it is.

HARRY POTTER FANS: We’re from Norway.

BOYFRIEND OF HARRY POTTER FAN: Mexico. Well, like I said, my girlfriend, she’s a big Harry Potter fan, so, well, she dragged me here.

HARRY POTTER FAN: We came especially for this. My best friend and I have been planning this since fourth grade.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the 10 years since the first installment, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” hit the shelves, some 325 million Potter books have been sold worldwide in more than 65 languages.

MAGGIE SMITH, “Professor McGonagall”: Welcome to Hogwarts.

JEFFREY BROWN: Five movies have been released; the latest opened earlier this month. All of it chronicles the adventures of Harry Potter — who discovers his magical abilities on his 11th birthday — his schoolmates, and their various friends and enemies. The new Potter book was a bestseller long before its release, with some two million copies pre-sold on Amazon.com.

In Britain, the Royal Mail expects to deliver a new Potter book to one in 40 households tomorrow. In this country, a recent survey found that 44 percent of households with teenagers plan to buy it. With fans eager to learn how the saga ends — Rowling herself had spoken of two main characters dying — a strict embargo was in place to build suspense and keep the book under wraps.

LAURA PORCO, Amazon.com: We have them under surveillance 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and we’re making sure that everybody within this area is absolutely approved to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: But in recent days, there’s been a mad scramble for information. Digital images of what some claimed was the entire text started appearing on the Internet early this week. A U.S. online retailer prematurely shipped up to 1,200 copies of the book to customers on Tuesday, and a handful of U.S. papers began publishing reviews of the book yesterday.

Still, would-be spoilers weren’t ruining things for Potter fans gathered today at this library in Falls Church, Virginia, a Washington, D.C., suburb.

YOUNG HARRY POTTER FAN: I’m excited that I get to see what happens to Harry Potter.

YOUNG HARRY POTTER FAN: I feel excited that I get to read another book about Harry Potter.

JEFFREY BROWN: Though, it must be said, not every critic was enthralled.

GABRIELLE BROWN, Harry Potter Reader: She overwrites just a tiny bit too much.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, Harry Potter has at times engendered a lively debate over its literary merits and its long-term impact on reading. But today, young fans who have grown up with the books were happy to expound on the joys they provide…

K-K BRACKEN: I think that the characters are really what draws me in. Every character is intrinsic within itself and could have a separate book written about them.

JEFFREY BROWN: … while also contemplating a future without Harry Potter.

HARRY POTTER FAN: I’m sure there’s going to be some questions left, but all of the things we’ve been waiting for are over, and we’re going to read — I’m going to keep reading the books. I’m not going to drop them after this. We’ve still got two movies coming out, but it really is the end of a part of our lives, and it’s kind of sad.

Harry Potter's impact on reading

JEFFREY BROWN: So why the Harry Potter phenomenon? And what impact has it had on young people and reading? We discuss that now with Dana Gioia, poet and chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA has published a survey called "Reading at Risk," and, for the record, helps fund the NewsHour's arts coverage.

And we're also joined from Seattle by librarian, author and NPR contributor Nancy Pearl. Her latest book, "Book Crush," offers recommended reading for kids and teens.

Well, Nancy Pearl, starting with you, how do you account for the Potter mania?

NANCY PEARL, Author, "Book Crush": Well, I think one of the reasons it's so popular is that they're simply terrific books. I think they offer kids everything that you would want in a book, a good story, as one of the kids said that you had interviewed earlier, interesting characters. I think the writing is smart, but not overly literary. And I think the setting of Hogwarts and the surrounding areas is just a brilliant contribution that Rowling has made.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dana Gioia, I understand that you read some of these books out loud to your son.

DANA GIOIA, Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts: Yes, I read the first four out loud to my sons, and they have continued reading the rest of them on their own.

JEFFREY BROWN: How do you explain the phenomenon?

DANA GIOIA: Well, I think Harry Potter's appeal to boys is that they're full of action, they're full of magic, and they're full of adventure, which are things that are often forgotten in the books that boys are assigned in school.

JEFFREY BROWN: There's this interesting phenomenon in this case, too, of kids growing up with the books as the characters get older.

DANA GIOIA: Yes, I think that's almost unique with this series, that someone has written a series of books in which the characters age as the readers age, and as the level of the difficulty of the books increases with the age of the readers.

JEFFREY BROWN: How do you -- what do you think about that, Nancy Pearl, that factor of it, the aging factor?

NANCY PEARL: I certainly think that's an important part of it. I think that it is unique, as Dana said. I don't know of another series that was timed so wonderfully that, as the books grew darker and more complex, the readers were able, more able to really get into that complexity and appreciate that titanic struggle between good and evil.

No substitute for daily reading

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the question raised -- and I'll start with you, Dana Gioia -- is, what does it all add up to? I've seen some studies that suggest that it hasn't had that hoped-for impact on children's reading.

DANA GIOIA: Well, the good thing about Harry Potter is it got tens of millions of kids to read challenging, long books. The problem is to read one big book every two years is no substitute for the habit of daily reading.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you think that's what's happened?

DANA GIOIA: Well, there's something quite interesting happening in American reading right now. It seems that elementary schools and teachers are doing a better job than ever of teaching kids to read. The trouble is, as those kids become teenagers, so many other forces in society take them away from reading.

JEFFREY BROWN: Nancy Pearl, what do you think Harry Potter -- what effect has it had on this generation of readers?

NANCY PEARL: I think it's developed a generation of Harry Potter readers. And the trick is now for educators and for librarians and for parents is to help those readers who love the Harry Potter books find other books that will replicate that experience. And there are so many terrific fantasy, not necessarily just fantasy, but so many wonderful books in the teen sections of libraries and bookstores that people aren't familiar with. And that's where those of us who love books, who want kids to continue reading throughout their lives, that's where we need to be putting those kids together with books.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, tell us more. How do you do it?

NANCY PEARL: Well, one of the ways you do it is by finding out what it is about those Harry Potter books that really attracted that child, what doorway that child entered that world through. For some, it was the character. And for those you go to other books in which the character is the primary doorway.

Dana was talking about, for boys, they're so filled with action, and that's what draws them in. And I think the majority of adult readers, as well as teens and kids, it's story that they read for. So for those readers, those teen readers, especially young teens, we go to the Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz, which is a wonderful, action-packed series with a kind of a young James Bond as the hero. But that's just one example in so many other books that are out there for people.

The 'Reading at Risk' report

JEFFREY BROWN: Dana Gioia, I mentioned this "Reading at Risk" report that you did a few years ago. What are you finding?

DANA GIOIA: Well, the "Reading at Risk" report is all bad news. What we're seeing is that every group of Americans is reading less than they used to. And there's actually a broader thing that's happening. Because people read less, they read less well; because they read less well, they do less well in school and less well in the job market. Interestingly, because they read less well, they participate in their communities less. So you see...

JEFFREY BROWN: You see a real connection there?

DANA GIOIA: Oh, it is overwhelming. Readers are four times more likely to do volunteer and charity work. The poorest group of Americans who read do twice as much volunteer work and charity work as the richest Americans who don't read. So it says that reading is something that has more to do with literature and culture; it's a building block of civic life and democracy.

JEFFREY BROWN: And why does it happen or when does it start? Is this a phenomenon of young people?

DANA GIOIA: Well, in some ways, it's a family behavior. I mean, people whose parents read to them or their grandparents read to them are more likely to read as adults. What's interesting is sometimes if the parents don't read to them, but the parents say, "Get out of here, I'm reading a book," they see their parents read, the kids read more, too. It's part of the family culture.

But whatever the reasons, reading somehow awakens something in a kid's life that makes them take their own life more seriously and other people's lives more seriously. I mean, for example, readers -- believe it or not -- exercise at twice the level of nonreaders. It's something that has very interesting effects, I mean, these things you would never expect. But the numbers are solid.

JEFFREY BROWN: Readers exercise at twice the -- OK.

DANA GIOIA: Well, maybe not you and me.

JEFFREY BROWN: That should go in the diet books now, right, or the health section. I'm wondering -- I mean, because I have kids, you have kids -- the phenomenon of other media, of course. They're on the Internet all the time, their video games. I mean, is that what you see playing into this?

DANA GIOIA: Absolutely. I mean, as people spend more and more time with electronic entertainment, they spend less time reading. But let me tell you something, the good side of this. If the Harry Potter phenomenon has taught us anything is that, when the media pays attention to books, talks about reading, talks about authors, talks about book series, the public response is overwhelming. You get millions of people that want to read the book.

People can't do something they don't know about. So I think it reminds us that, when we celebrate books, when we create positive social pressure to read, it's transformative, not just to the individuals, but to society.

Helping kids find their next book

JEFFREY BROWN: Nancy Pearl, are you quite as downcast about the future of reading or the present and the future of reading?

NANCY PEARL: I don't think I'm quite as downcast as Dana is. My experience when I was doing the reading and writing of "Book Crush" involved speaking to kids all over the world about what they were reading and why they were reading those books. And I think that it really is a problem to help the child find the next good book, unless you're familiar with that whole world of teen literature or children's literature. So I think that there's a big disconnect that we're not doing a particularly good job at reconnecting.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I want to ask this one for the parents and grandparents, too. It's a constant question. Is it better that they're -- Nancy Pearl, I'll start with you. Is it better that they're reading anything at all, or should they be only reading "high quality"? This, of course, came up in the Harry Potter discussions for those who, you know, didn't like the literary merits of the books.

NANCY PEARL: And I've gone back and forth on this over the course of my life. But at this point, I think that a book that you love is a good book. I think that, the more you read, the more discerning you're going to be about the quality of the writing or the character development. But you have to start somewhere, and anywhere you start is the right place for you to start.

JEFFREY BROWN: What's your answer to that, Dana Gioia?

DANA GIOIA: See, I agree. Every passionate reader I know pretty much started reading something embarrassingly bad. I mean, they got into the habit of just reading on a daily basis. They fell in love with books. And the more they read, the smarter they became, the more discerning they became, and they developed a kind of inner-life and intellectual capacity that would never have happened otherwise.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Dana Gioia and Nancy Pearl, thank you both very much.

NANCY PEARL: Thank you.