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J.K. Rowling and the Dead Zone

With author J.K. Rowling declaring she’s written the last of the Harry Potter titles, there’s a panic coming from the publishing world that there will be nothing to take Harry’s place. I suppose this fear anticipates the readership’s sadness, it certainly expresses the commercial concern, but it cloaks itself in a [Scholastic] librarian’s voice: whatever now will the children find interest in reading?
 
Harry Potter has been around for ten years. Educators like to credit him for pulling children from the terminus of their gaming consoles. If Potter has created an upsurge in reading, I ask you, to where has it led? Ten years is enough to have nourished the new generation. Over 325 million Rowling books have been sold. The first Harry Potter readers are already graduated from college. What are they doing?

It’s a leading question, because I haven’t an answer. It’s not discernible. Blogs, Myspace, trivia-tourism, what? I’ll confer with college professors and get back to you, but it certainly isn’t the Peace Corps.

I would purport that the Scholastic [1] worship of Harry betrays a lack of faith in what it means to read. Do children need to be rewarded for reading? Is not escaping into the abstract a pleasure unto itself? I thought it was a fundamental need that even distinguishes us as human beings. Do we have to offer candy bars to induce people to eat? I’m sure humans can run themselves out of gas out of sheer distraction, but I know appetite is inherent.

A key is to educate children that there’s a world beyond theirs, an abstraction beyond their horizon, which can be explored through reading. Much of it, history, thought, imagination, lies only in books. Travel and science can lie beyond if they wish. Those subjects are taught in school, via reading. Teachers who suspect their students haven’t bought into reading are obviously not grading to challenging standards.

Through books lies an existence of infinite proportion, as n approaches the finite lifetime. Are the Potters hypothesizing that children must be coaxed into this world, without regard that it might be form over substance? Do children whose thumbs twitch for video games need to be lured by books that feel like video games which lead, like arcades and the pool halls before them, nowhere? With Harry Potter, are we creating readers or are we killing them off? Form has become the new substance, which to some sounds clever and new, but really means empty is the new full.

Dead Zone
There’s something happening outside the Mississippi Delta where man’s agricultural runoff, waste and industrial pollutants meet the sea. It’s being called a Dead Zone, which describes it literally, and it’s growing. The phenomena is a total collapse of the ecosystem leaving Hypoxia, the absence of oxygen in the water. It starts with the algae, then never mind every next link in the food chain [2]. We’ve measured it only since 20 years ago. Doubtless it started earlier. Doubtless too it’s happening exponentially in every estuary downstream of overpopulation. I read about Hypoxia overtaking Lake Victoria in Africa, rendering it a sinkhole, the social repercussions of which match Dante.

I cannot but wonder if such a consequence of pollution cannot manifest itself on the human population. Could not our minds become sink holes? Could not a culture or generation be faced with a Dead Zone?

Debilitating, not irreversible in the grand scheme, but certainly final, like stunted growth. Generations of minds shrunk below capacity, below what we might have wished for them, like fingers crippled by the early industrial age. A dead zone of thought, of initiative or motivation, of energy needed to get out of the dead zone. Why it’s called a dead zone, not merely an empty one.

Booksellers seem happy as snakes to see our children want sugar instead of oxygen.

Footnotes
1. The publishers of Harry Potter, Scholastic Press, is a commercial enterprise, not an educational concern as the name implies. It’s like the pseudo-junk food company Subway, owned their ads say, by Doctors Associates, Inc.
2. Overuse of synthetic fertilizers has been causing rising hypoxia on every coast. The excess nitrates lead to blooms of algae which pull all the oxygen from the water, knocking the breath from all other living things. So my analogy is closer than I intended.

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Comments

Comment from kv   (IP: 71.219.218.197)
Time: July 18, 2007, 2:15 pm

If Harry Potter learned some wizardry, wouldn’t it be great if it was picked up by the millions of readers during these past 10 years. Think of all the dead zones that could be “healed.” Better yet minds that could be magically changed to be kinder to our planet earth and her inhabitants.

Comment from jonah   (IP: 75.70.7.1)
Time: July 18, 2007, 6:09 pm

Hey, they DO a magick trick with the book.

They can Transmogrify YOUR money into THEIR money…

all done without smoke or mirrors. Neat trick, huh?

I did get an unauthorized (yeah right, read the title) e-copy of Steal This Book.

Abbie, dude, you were and always will be cool in anybody’s book.

RIP man, we ain’t never forgot.

Comment from Marie Walden   (IP: 75.70.36.58)
Time: July 19, 2007, 10:55 am

I believe that the Harry phenomenon has been great for kids. As the referenced article pointed out, it has gotten a broad spectrum of children reading for pleasure for perhaps the first time. Even boys. MY boys.

When I was young I was ENGROSSED with Nancy Drew. No, I didn’t become a SLEUTH with TITIAN hair, nor do I drive a SEDAN or have many CHUMS, but I did increase my vocabulary as you can plainly see.

In sixth grade I had the dubious honor of being forced in Great Books. This is a program wherein 12-year-olds read books like Pygmalion or The Grapes of Wrath and “discuss” them. The discussions went something like this. “Marie, who is the protagonist in the novel?” “Huh?” “What is the central theme?” “What?” My former husband says if you simply say that a particular character is the “Christ figure” you’ll always receive kudos. Anyway, I hated every second of it. It turned me off “literature” for a long time.

Better to let people (not only children read the HP books) discover the true escape that awaits them with a good book in hand. Over time, if they keep reading, the choice of book will hopefully become more sophisticated and relevant. I read Toni Morrison’s Beloved when I was in my 20s and detested it mightily. Didn’t get it. Didn’t want to get it. Thought it sucked. End of story. I re-read it a couple of years ago, cover to cover in one sitting…I thought it was mystical and beautiful and brilliant.

People change. Reading helps. I’m glad all of my kids are past the Captain Underpants craze.

Comment from Eric   (IP: 75.71.4.5)
Time: July 19, 2007, 1:38 pm

Who is saying that kids should read adult literature? What about children’s books of literary merit? The dumbing-down issue is not new. Literary critic Harold Bloom asked in his first review of Harry Potter: “Why read, if what you read will not enrich mind or spirit or personality?”

Three years later, on whether JK Rowling has led kids to reading, Bloom opined: “Harry Potter” will not lead our children on to Kipling’s “Just So Stories” or his “Jungle Book.” It will not lead them to Thurber’s “Thirteen Clocks” or Kenneth Grahame’s “Wind in the Willows” or Lewis Carroll’s “Alice.”
Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone 
Stephen King famously wrote HP will lead them “to a guy named King.” Nobody was sure he was joking.

Recognize the book cover at left? I learned from Wikipedia the original Potter book was called Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, but Scholastic insisted on changing it to Sorcerer’s Stone because American children might not know what a philosopher was.

Comment from Marie Walden   (IP: 75.70.36.58)
Time: July 19, 2007, 1:52 pm

Well, then we can blame Scholastic and the “educators” for dumbing down the kids. My children are far more likely to know what a philosopher is than a sorceror. Too bad the powers that be chase test scores and not real education. I guess it’s up to me to raise my children. Sigh.

Comment from jonah   (IP: 75.70.7.1)
Time: July 19, 2007, 1:59 pm

Or what the philosopher’s stone was…

Even though there’s a chapter in the (mandatory for curriculum statewide) Eighth grade Science book about the difference between Alchemy and Chemistry.

If you mention the two mythical chemicals Adamantium and Alkahest they’ll recognize the first one as what Logan’s (aka Wolverine from X Men) claws are made from. The next one would be “Huh?”

I had a psychiatric OPINION one time, because I had mentioned that I read Science Fiction books, “subject’s reading tastes are toward Fiction, thus indicating not reality oriented”

There were a couple of short stories in my 3rd grade (mandatory statewide in curriculum) English book about a Teaching Machine, pure science fiction in 1970, the kids were at the teaching machine, brother and sister close to each other in age, and coincidentally close to the 3rd and 4th grade in age,
and the subject of School comes up. The machine tells them that in the Distant Past children would go and gather together into classrooms and have a human teaching them. This amazed the youngsters.

The second story was when they had been up in the attic on a rainy day and found books, they were asking the machine what Books were.

One of our class exercises was to draw what we thought a “teaching machine” would look like, virtually all of us drew a television, and more than half had a television with a typewriter keyboard attached.

Speculative Fiction = “fantasy world” my ass.

Comment from Eric   (IP: 75.71.4.5)
Time: July 20, 2007, 1:26 am

Beside the aforementioned: Kipling,
Thurber, Grahame, Carroll,

there are, somewhat chronologically:
Dumas, Stevenson, Defoe,
Twain, Alcott, Rawlings,
MacDonald, Verne, Baum,
Ingalls Wilder, Hodgson Burnett,
Conrad, London, Barrie,
Milne, White, Lewis,
Dahl, Mowat, Hinton,
Montgomery, Blyton, Lindgren,
Konigsburg, DeJong, Alexander,
Estes, Cleary, Blume,
Paulsen, Zindel, O’Dell,
L’Engle, McCaffrey, Le Guin,
Duncan, Voigt, Lowry.

Check out this Top 100.
And a reference for literary award recipients.
Plus I found the full text of my favorite fairytale The Light Princess.

Comment from Marie Walden   (IP: 75.70.36.58)
Time: July 20, 2007, 3:57 am

Great list! I can’t wait to read The Light Princess to the kids!

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