Tuesday, July 19, 2005


Minority Report -- Part II: Finding our inner Republican

Why are the Harry Potter books so popular with grown ups?

Will I have any friends left after today? Practically all my blogger friends are heavily into Potterzeebie. Check out this post by Phantom Scribbler -- 93 comments and counting!!!

The Potter bandwagon is a juggernaut rolling through the American heartland. Even folks who didn't love this latest book, have read (or heard) them all.

And then there's the whole meme about which dorm (or "house") you're admitted to in Harry Potter's school.

Potterzeebie is not the same as the crazes over beenie babies or furbies. Those clearly involved parents lining up to get stuff for their kids. With Potterzeebie, the grownups -- and we're talking about discerning, highly literate people here -- are getting their own reading enjoyment.

I'm guessing that most adult Harry Potter fans would not say these novels are the greatest literary feat of our times, even though they may well be the greatest literary marketing feat of our times. So I'm asking for your theories: why are the Harry Potter books so popular with grown ups?

The answer can't be: "because it's a book that appeals to adults and kids at the same time, so we can read it together." First that's too easy, and it doesn't explain why Harry Potter so excels the many other entertainment vehicles that meet this criterion. Anyway, that answer begs the question: why do the grown ups like it so much?

Here's my theory. Harry Potter has two qualities that make it an irresistable commodity.

1. The Harry Potter books resonate with contemporary ideas about parenting. Suzuki violin, multiple languages, karate, ice skating, soccer, pre-school reading. We've discovered that the ability of young children to learn far exceeds what was believed (or practiced) when we were kids. They're knowledge-and-skill sponges! If only our own parents had been more on the ball, we'd all be multi-talented renaissance men and women by now. Our kids do, it turns out, have magic powers. And so did we -- but they went to waste!

2. The Harry Potter books appeal to our inner Republican. What at bottom is the basic premise of Harry Potter? A young boy inherits incredible wealth (in the form of magical powers) from his parents and goes to an exclusive boarding school. Hmm, that sounds familiar: a fantasy about sending kids to private school, getting away from all those buffoonish unmagical Muggles, and inheriting huge capital gains with little or nothing taken out in "death" taxes, which would just be squandered by being redistributed to the Muggles anyway...


Yes, it will be a wonder if you have any remaining friends after slagging Harry Potter and Star Wars in the same blog post.

I think there was a much better children's series (or several) about young people at a wizarding/witchcraft school, written by Brits - "Worst Witch" is one such (and also turned into a movie and a tv series) and there's another one, but I can't remember the name. I think the popularity stems from a multitude of factors, like the same thing that made a song a top 10 hit (that's changed somewhat nowadays with modern music marketing).

Anyway, I've got my copy and I'll be reading it interspersed with another children's book "Howl's Moving Castle", purchased because we really enjoyed the Miazaki film based on that novel.

I'll still be your friend, because you didn't also slag Futurama
If our parents weren't on the ball, how the heck did I wind up so much of a multi-talented rennaisance woman that a journalist flat out disbelieved all of the things I had done and projects I was working on? I shudder to think what kind of neurotic workaholic I'd be if they had been on the ball.

But really, it's Robert A Heinlein's fault. I was going to link to the following quote, but it's completely buried on a huge page. Here's the quote:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

And he left off "play 5 or 6 instruments passably well and read treble, bass, alto and tenor clefs"
Goodness, you are cranky about this!

I've never understood the appeal of the Lloyd Alexander and Susan Cooper books, myself, but I won't go calling you a mushy-headed liberal if you like them!
Hey, I so agree with Oscar that I posted TWO comments to show my support. The lengthier one is appended to the post below, but they say the same thing: calm down, people, it's not about the book, it's about YOU. Oscar got it basically right in this post, only I wouldn't have stopped with point 1 & 2. I would have handed it over to a psychoanalyst for additional help -- or whoever these days deciphers internal needs and unsatisfied cravings in a coherent way.
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
If the commenters from my blog came over here, I'm sure they would tell you why that #2 description sounds more like elitist liberals.
I think you're last two posts have gone a little overboard in emphasizing the Harry-Potter-as-trust-fund-baby theme. You have Harry, an orphan who spends the first ten years of his life being raised in a cupboard by relatives who mistreat him (and, who, incidentally, are clearly Tories), and his two main friends are a boy who gets picked on for being poor and a girl who gets picked on for having muggle parents. Most of the other main companions of Harry's have all also been rejected by the elite wizarding society in one way or another.
Stop hating on Harry Potter!!!!

p.s. We are no longer friends.
Jeremy: Yeah, and I guess it would be overboard to associate Cinderella with royalty.

Nina: Thanks for helping to bring calm to the discussion: "Oscar isn't insulting your book -- he's insulting YOU!"

Tonya: :(
Hey, I liked the book. It just wasn't my very favorite in the series. It's no mystery why people love HP. The books are fun, clever, and touch on enough real-life themes that people connect with them. That, and now after reading the first few, everyone has to know how it'll all turn out, and if their favorite wacky theories are going to pan out.
Was that "huh?" at me? If so "getting away from all those buffoonish unmagical Muggles" sounds like the Blue Staters attitude toward Middle America. And conservatives are more focused on business and free enterprise, making new money, than inherited wealth. It seems to me that the big inherited wealth regions of the country are the Blue States.
Allison: sorry... I did it too (mistook criticism for dislike)!

Ann: Sure there's such a thing as "liberal elitism," but since when did those two words become inextricably linked together (other than by Republican phrasemakers)? There's conservative elitism, there are rich conservative Republicans in blue states, and there is plenty of inherited wealth in red states. While I recognize the alignments on the attack on "death taxes" and the promotion of vouchers for private schools have some complexities, those issues are much more strongly associated with the current Republican than Democratic agenda.
You left out one appeal of the Harry Potter series: the fact that they are so popular. I think the books are pretty good, not at all great, and entertaining enough and quick reads, but a lot of why I've read them is precisely because so many people have read them that it's good to know something about them. Part of what interests me is precisely the question How come people love these books so much? And as a comp and lit professor, I've had enough students who want to argue that they are the greatest books ever written, that I felt obligated to read them for myself. Plus, having read them helps me cover up how much of a literary snob I am to my students.

Probably the greatest appeal for me of the books is simple nostalgia--I used to read a lot of sci-fi and fantasy novels when I was a kid, but I don't anymore, and it's fun to read something new and think about how much I would have loved it when I was about 8 years old.

And like I say, none of the books is badly written or anything, and each of them has offered something of worth, and they're quick and so many people like them, why not read them? I don't really understand the adults who argue that they are The Greatest Books Ever, though I haven't really come across too many of them who I wouldn't have trouble understanding for lots of other reasons too.
you are also attributing American values and culture to what is an undeniably British book. The whole "private school" system thing is very different in England than it is in the US.
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