Harry Potter's fans are as excited as the students on the opening day of Hogwarts. What will become of their bespectacled hero? The answer will be revealed in the final book of the series, due on Saturday. But here's a question for the Harry faithful: What will become of them as readers?
If only the boy wizard's last trick were to turn them all into habitual and lifelong readers of literature – an endangered species in America. That special, almost sacred, time reserved for an intimate and imaginative journey of reader and author is losing out to need-to-know informational reading and electronic entertainment.
The literary world can argue whether J.K. Rowling's books qualify as "real" literature. Too formulaic, say some (but aren't sonnets also formulas?). In any case, the books have moved through US society (and the world) in a way similar to the serial works of Charles Dickens. Throngs waited on New York docks, yelling questions about the fate of "little Nell" to sailors whose ship carried copies of "The Old Curiosity Shop."
In the same way, millions of children – and adults – got hooked on Harry (325 million copies have sold worldwide; 121.5 million in the US). They've read aloud to one another, and by flashlight under the covers. It was unheard of, but kids lined up for the books, then churned through hundreds of pages. Reading proponents were rightly thrilled at the interest, but it remains to be seen what becomes of it.
A landmark study by the National Endowment for the Arts has shown reading of literature on a steep decline, with less than half of US adults reading a novel, short story, poem, or play in 2004 (the most recent data available). The percentage of children who read for pleasure plunges as they get older. Federal statistics show no difference in the drop-off of such reading for young people before Harry Potter (1998), and the release of the sixth book in the series (2005). [Editor's Note: The original version incorrectly described the 2005 Harry
Potter book. That edition was the sixth in the series.]
Reversing the trend must involve greater recognition of the value of reading literature. Like art, it can turn two-dimensional living into 3-D life, allowing an individual to unplug from the everyday world and connect with a creative one – rich in texture and meaning, intrigue or adventure.
By its nature, reading literature requires a certain stillness. But if many Americans can't even find the time for a vacation break, when will they ever stop long enough for a novel?
Americans also need to be prodded. When they are still in school, young people can be encouraged by parents and teachers, who take them to the library or assign summer reading lists.
As adults, they may be inspired by book reviews (alas, newspapers are cutting way back on that – a sadly ironic trend since book readers and newspaper readers belong to the larger reader family). They can join a book club, or their town may sponsor a program for reading selected books.
"The Big Read," launched by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2006, encourages communities to join in reading one work of American literature. The program is growing rapidly (take note, the application deadline for the next round is days away – July 31).
The Harry Potter series may be over, but it doesn't have to close the chapter on reading.