After Hours

Harry Potter is dead -- will reading die with him? (Hint: Too late)

Remember back in April when I asked you to think about what sci-fi/fantasy books you'd recommend to folks who'd just gotten into the literary habit thanks to the Harry Potter series, which will die this week when the final installment, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, hits stores Saturday? Well, our friends at SFSignal have completed their extensive list of Potter-withdrawal recovery books (which inspired us in the first place), but it may have been pointless. Harry Potter might be dead, but reading died long before he got here.

This column by Washington Post book critic Ron Charles ran last week, and it had the temerity to make two assertions:

  1. The Harry Potter series isn't actually all that good.
  2. Harry Potter hasn't actually gotten very many people reading.

Now, I've read nary a word of a Potter book (yeah, I'm that guy), so I'm not in a position to weigh in on the quality, though the movies derived from the novels haven't been much to write home about. But, as they say, never judge a book by its movie.

As to the second point, I can offer only anecdotal evidence in that every person I know who has read the Potter books was already an avid reader — usually of fantasy and/or sci-fi — and simply jumped on the Potter bandwagon when it became clear that muggles were finally interested in their particular niche pastime.

Numbers bear this out: Even with the Potter series proving popular enough to make J. K. Rowling a billionaire and peg every one of her books atop the bestseller lists, her sales barely move the needle on an overall decline in reading across the United States (and, based on additional data, most other industrialized countries). What's really happened is that existing readers flocked to the series, but that readership itself is still down. The book industry is worse than a zero-sum game, because the sum is decreasing.

As to Potter's current zeitgeist appeal, I suspect that 20 years on, many of the bibliophiles who read Harry Potter will look back in embarrassment in much the same way contemporary audiophiles regret their fashionable 1970s indiscretions with disco. That said, I'm a pretty harsh critic, and I already bear the geek-equivalent scarlet letter of being someone who didn't like The Hobbit and couldn't get more than five chapters into Fellowship of the Ring before swearing off Tolkien forever. (The movies were alright, though in serious need of some editing; don't judge a movie by its book, either.) I'm probably not the best marker of cultural proclivities.

So, thus arises the question: Is Harry Potter the most overrated book series ever? If not, what is? I'd be glad to find out this isn't in fact the low point of popular fiction, but just a momentary lapse in reason (possibly mine).

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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