Stuck in the Middle With Harry
Feelings run strong for Harry Potter: People either love him or hate him. Count Carl Olson out of the debate — or in it, but not in the usual way.
I recently discovered that I am part of a select group of people. We only comprise .04% of the population. Who are we? People with no particular opinion about the Harry Potter books.
I’ve now become Carl the Contrarian, taking grumpy pleasure in avoiding the Wiz Kid and related hoopla. But, hopefully to my credit, I’ve tried to keep up with the strong opinions about the books and their author, J.K. Rowling.
People either love Harry or hate him. There’s no middle ground. I’ve noted that feelings seem especially focused among well-read, articulate, serious and faithful Catholics.
Well, I’m here to tell you that I’m not convinced by the strong rhetoric coming from the far ends of either camp. I doubt that reading the Potter books is creating a generation of kids selling their souls to the occult.
I also doubt that kids who read the Potter books are encountering the greatest story of their time, or that they will develop a lifetime love of reading because of it.
Instead, I tend to see kids (and many adults) going along for a fun ride hyped by big marketing and facilitated by educationalists making far too much out of the supposed benefits of reading the books.
I suppose that much of my reaction is based in my upbringing in a fundamentalist home in which The Chronicles of Narnia stories were criticized because they (gasp!) featured a witch. Somehow, despite opposition and suspicion, I read much fiction. In fifth grade I made my way through some literary classics, as well as several Hardy Boys adventures and Encyclopedia Brown mysteries.
In high school I read even more widely while continuing to toggle between great literature and popular, escapist fun. I also began to develop a taste for contemporary nonfiction on all manner of subjects.
Strangely enough, while my parents wouldn’t have been happy with everything I read, they always encouraged me to read. That was no small concession, considering that my father readily admits he has never read one work of fiction in his life. (“Why should I read fiction? It’s not true!”)
Yet I fully and happily concur that parents (me included), who are the primary teachers of their children, shouldn’t shy away from keeping track of their children’s reading habits. After all, they are the best judges of how a child might respond to a certain book.
Which brings us back to the Harry Potter books. From where I sit, it seems the strongest critics and the most ardent advocates of the Potter books seem to share a common belief: that fiction is always a form of proselytism (“Oh, no! They’ll become Wiccans!”) or instruction (“Oh, yes! They’ll become great readers!”). But good storytelling neither proselytizes nor inculcates. It transports.
C.S. Lewis, in An Experiment in Criticism, emphasized that, by reading fiction, we are able to see the world through the eyes and mind of another. It doesn’t mean that we agree with or embrace that perception but that we have, in a sense, walked a ways in some else’s shoes. Doing so, he said, broadens our vision.
“I become a thousand men and yet remain myself,” he wrote. “Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with myriad eyes, but it is still I who see.”
Lewis was a wise man, a joyful Christian and a brilliant man of letters. He may have critiqued Rowling’s works but he wouldn’t have denounced them.
We’d do well to take that approach, too. At least, that’s my opinion. Unparticular though it may be.
Carl E. Olson is editor of