Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Harry Potter as "shared text"

I haven't read any of the books yet. That will probably change after reading John Granger's essay in Touchstone.

Granger talks about HP's immense/wide cultural appeal and makes several points:

-One probably forfeits some or most cultural relevancy-- to the extent that matters-- absent some familiarity with the books.

-A long discussion of Allan Bloom and the importance of cultural relevance for the individual and his culture-- in avoiding relativism and promoting community. (Granger reflects on his initial encounter with Bloom oh so many years ago-- and it's quite entertaining but too long to reproduce here.)

No less a thinker than Allan Bloom taught me too many years ago that “shared books” are the foundation of culture, politics, and individual thinking. And Harry Potter is the “shared text” of the twenty-first century....

In a nutshell, we had no texts in common that could shape public discourse or guide our conventions. Bereft of a base in Scripture, literature, and history, we were a lost generation....

I remember ten of us sitting together in the tiny break room of Regenstein Library a few weeks later, trying to figure out what books we had in common....We were confident that Bloom had overstated the case of our ignorance and our generation’s not having any shared texts.

After an hour of tossing around the titles of books, poems, and plays, however, we had to admit defeat. Nothing of greater depth than Dr. Seuss had been read by more than six of us....

With the advent of Harry Potter, of course, this failing has been corrected in a way that wouldn’t have been conceivable fifteen years ago....Like it or not, we now have a shared text.

Granger sees this as "a good thing" and lists five reasons:

1. There is no relativism in the Harry Potter novels.

2. The books, as books, invite readers to read more books....because these novels are a “rowling” together of ten different literary genres, they create an appetite for a variety of fiction...Harry Potter isn’t the gateway to the occult but a portal to a lifetime of edifying reading. The Harry Potter generation will be a generation that reads for pleasure. This in itself represents a significant cultural shift in the offing.

3. The stories have a challenging message for postmodern readers [given its emphasis on history, deep "questions and concerns " and its “religious undertones”.

4. The shared text is ubiquitous.

5. The author is making an argument—and an important one....It is easy to dismiss the Potter novels as “slop” because, as Potter admirer James Thomas of Pepperdine University has noted, they strike most academics as “too current, too juvenile and too popular.” They are anything but ontologically flat, however; rather, they foster a view of things and persons that is not superficial...

Granger's conclusion:

Harry is not the Bible, Pilgrim’s Progress, or Plutarch’s Lives; it is, however, a shared text and a profound one operating on many levels. From this text, we can build a conversation about virtue and vice, and about what reading does to the right-side-up soul. From it, too, we can take an invitation to go on to even better books—ones that our grandparents’ great-grandparents had in common, and others that our children may one day write. Hasten the day!


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