I was recently reading an issue of Maclean’s, which is a Canadian magazine that covers politics and culture, and a certain name caught my eye within a column.
Someone had invoked Harry Potter and something within me knew this couldn’t be good. Writer Emma Tietel says that if you Google “Common Misconceptions” one of them you’ll find is that Harry Potter did not in fact inspire a generation of young readers to read.
Although the article is more about freedom of speech than it is about whether or not Harry Potter inspired young readers to pick up books, this was the first time I had heard this argument.
And I did Google that exact term and I can’t say that Wikipedia is always the most credible source, but regardless here’s what it says:
- Although the Harry Potter books broke children’s book publishing records, with 60% of American children having read at least one of the books by 2001,, and although they have been cited as motivating children and adults to read, they have not led to an increase in reading among children or adults, nor slowed the ongoing overall decline in book purchases by Americans, and children who did read the Harry Potter books were not more likely to go on to read more outside of the fantasy and mystery genres.
The one citation that seems to support this argument the most is an article written by Motoko Rich, an Education reporter for the New York Times.
In the article, she argues that the there hasn’t been a measurable change in the amount of young and adolescent readers after the release of the books.
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a series of U.S. tests administered every few years to a sample of students in grades 4, 8 and 12, the percentage of kids who said they read for fun almost every day dropped from 43 percent in fourth grade to 19 percent in eighth grade in 1998, the year “Sorcerer’s Stone” was published in the United States. In 2005, when “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” the sixth book, was published, the results were identical.
In the article, Rich also cites a number of studies that support an overall decline in the amount of reading that kids are doing in the United States.
In a study commissioned last year by Scholastic, Yankelovich, a market research firm, reported that 51 percent of the 500 kids aged 5 to 17 polled said they did not read books for fun before they started reading the series. A little over three-quarters of them said Harry Potter had made them interested in reading other books.
She also brings in some first-person accounts like Kara Havranek who says she struggled to read through the books, but ultimately found herself a huge fan of the series.
Before she discovered Harry Potter, Kara Havranek, 13, spent most of her time romping outside in Parma, a suburb of Cleveland, or playing video games like Crash Bandicoot.
But four years after struggling through “Sorcerer’s Stone,” Kara has read and reread all six books, decorated her bedroom with Potter memorabilia and said she could hardly wait for “Deathly Hallows.”
But although Kara said she has enjoyed other books, she was not sure what lasting influence the series would have. “I probably won’t read as much when Harry Potter is over,” she said.
The article is really more about the larger issue of kids in the United States not being properly encouraged to read more than what’s on their curriculum at school. While there is some evidence to back up that Harry Potter hasn’t had a tangible effect on the death of readership in the United States it fails to take into account that the books aren’t just a North American phenomenon.
In 2005, The Guardian published a story on Harry Potter’s magic turning kids into bookworms where they cited a survey published by Waterstones, a retail bookstore, and carried out by the Federation of Children’s Book Groups that found, “That 59 per cent of children feel that the Potter books have helped them improve their reading skills. Nearly half said that Rowling’s series made them want to read more books.”
Teachers are even more convinced of Potter’s magic effect on children’s literacy. Eighty-four per cent of the profession say that the boy wizard has had a positive impact on children’s reading abilities and 73 per cent admit that they have been surprised by some of the children that have managed to read Potter. Two-thirds told how Potter had helped turn non-reading pupils into readers.
So there’s conflicting evidence as to the effects Harry Potter has had on an entire generation of readers, but both sets of arguments have their problems.
Just because a group of kids say they have read more because of the book series doesn’t mean that it’s true and just because a group of kids say that it didn’t motivate them to read doesn’t mean that’s true either.
In a way even arguing that the datasets are wrong is a fallacy in and of itself, so we can see the inherent problems with calling anything a misconception when, epistemologically speaking, we ask what the hell can we actually know?
So how do we find out if Harry Potter inspired an entire generation of readers? Well, we can’t.
There’s no way we can generalize the experiences of a generation, so all we can do is look for first-hand accounts as the writers did in both cases above.
I can bring in my own experience as a reader and let you know that, at least in my case, reading Harry Potter has helped me gain a deeper appreciation for books and well-written series that actually hook you in.
In 1997 when Harry Potter was first released, I was six years old. I was a spry lad with golden locks who lived his days outside running through valleys, staring up at the clouds, and loving life to the fullest… wait, no that’s all wrong.
I lived in a sketchy neighbourhood, but spent quite a bit of time playing soccer outside or running around the local jungle gym with friends. I also spent an equal amount of time playing video games inside. Books I remember reading fully during that time in my life were James and Giant Peach, A Wrinkle in Time, and way too many Redwall books. There were also a huge number of other books I don’t remember, but still sit in my bookcase.
However, I have to confess that I was a bit of a lazy reader. When Harry Potter first landed into our home on his Nimbus 2000, my oldest brother read the book within a few days. I didn’t and asked my parents to read it to me. They obliged, but eventually I would start reading the books on my own.
But somewhere between The Goblet or Fire and The Order of the Phoenix, I stopped reading the series in my youth. Later on in life in high school, I’d pick up the Harry Potter books after ignoring them for a long time.
However, I’ve watched the movies more times than I’m comfortable saying online for fear that people would think I have a problem (I have a problem). In high school, I began reading poetry more than teen fiction. I bought and read the works of Alfred Lord Tennyson, Lord Byron, and other romantics, but also the works of E.E. Cummings, Samuel Beckett, Robert Frost, Ray Bradbury, Terry Pratchett, Robert Heinlein, Douglas Adams, John Wyndham, Edgar Allen Poe, Charlotte Bronte, Mary Shelly, Hunter S. Thompson, H.P. Lovecraft, and many others.
In other words, I don’t think Harry Potter necessarily inspired me to read more in my youth, but it certainly didn’t take away from my desire to find new books when I got older. If anything the series contributed to an appreciation of finely-crafted narratives that has brought me back to the series over and over again as an adult.
Reading the series again makes you appreciate writers who can weave long series of books without losing their way. I also believe that J.K. Rowling’s novels played a part in my love of fantasy novels and mystery-based video games, so one part of that Wikipedia entry may be right.
They also inspired a whole generation of writers as a fledgling fantasy writer that I can confess (I’ve been working on a book, shhhhhh).
I think the real misconception here is thinking that the reading habits of some U.S. kids and teens speaks to the worlds’ desire to read. Using statistics based on a percentile of the human reading experience in a study that was more about determining why book sales were declining in the mid 2000s doesn’t exactly tickle my brain in the right way, but the same could be said for statistics used by those who said the book series did engage readers.
Also it would be interesting to see if the same results crop up in a study of Canadian teenagers rather than our neighbours South of the border.
Ultimately, it’s up to you whether young or old to read. My parents played a huge role instilling that reading books was a great way to learn, so I have to thank them, but I have a feeling my wheels are starting to spin.
So what do you think?
Do you think that Harry Potter inspiring a whole generation of readers is a misconception?
Let me know in the comments and we can talk about it.