As a diligent mother, I had gone to extreme lengths to acquire movie tickets for the new Harry Potter film. I knew a friend of a friend who knew somebody at PVR cinemas and I had got the prize: first day-first show tickets. And then, my 12-year-old dropped the bombshell. “Harry Potter is boring. I don’t want to see the film.”
Was I crestfallen at my daughter’s act of rebellion? Truth be told, there was a sense of disappointment—but also of relief. Many, many years ago I had valiantly tried to read the first Potter book to my children at bedtime, only to give up when I saw how quickly it put them off to sleep and how fast J.K. Rowling’s deathless prose seemed to dry up my throat. We never did finish the book. And I think we were all relieved when I went back to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
It’s day two PDH (post Deathly Hallows). The hype and hard sell for weeks preceding ‘The Launch’ have paid off in terms of early sales figures. Reliable reports inform me that the US print run is 12 million copies; 240,000 copies have hit Indian shores and punters say 160,000 of these were sold on day one alone.
Book 7’s launch had the usual ingredients of the previous launches: a one past midnight release; top-level secrecy with books being trundled off in armoured vans; children—and a distressing number of adults—in costume, no less, lining up for hours to grab their first copies.
To be sure there were a bunch of “spoilsports”—pages posted on the Internet before the anointed hour, early shipments by an online firm, right wing ministers in Israel threatening bookstores with dire consequences for staying open on Sabbath, and advance reviews (most notably by The New York Times which heaped praise on the book—‘spellbinding’, ‘monumental’, etc.—and contained not one hint of a plot spoiler).
No matter. Rowling was reportedly “staggered” at the “disregard of the wishes of millions of readers”. There were others who rushed to her defence. On the Huffingtonpost site, Rachel Sklar was breathing fire and brimstone in a post titled, Harry Potter and the Fact that I hate The New York Times. For Sklar, the embargo on the book was “tantamount to a public trust”. Breaking that trust, even by 24 hours, was enough to send her off the rails. Elsewhere, bloggers like grannieannie threatened to cancel their NYT subscriptions.
Excuse me? Is someone concerned that we’ve just gone overboard? What is it about an innocuous book—and not a particularly well-written one—about a boy wizard that has sparked off this hysteria? And why am I left dismayed?
On a most basic level, the sales pitch and the hype generated by a giant PR machine with the media and large bookstore chains often playing complicit partners has got to be off-putting. This is manipulation at its most crass level.
But that’s just one part of the story. On another level there is something deeply, deeply unsettling to see the sort of blind devotion that Master H-Pott seems to command. It’s like watching Benny Hinn on God TV whipping up a torrent of tears and Hallelujahs from thousands and thousands of perfectly reasonable-looking adults. Is there place for reason in the world of Harry Potter madness? NYT had a minor ‘scoop’. What ethical breach had it committed by purchasing a book from a bookstore that had chosen to ignore the embargo? And at the end of the day, it’s just a book. But to say that in the wake of Pottermania makes me liable for treason.
But to me the deepest cut of them all is the way the Harry Potter hype-machine has robbed reading of its romance. What can compare with the sheer pleasure of discovering a great book—and wanting to share that with close friends? What could give a child greater self-esteem than coming up to a parent, new book in hand, saying, “You have just got to read this,”?
I’ve heard the argument that the HP series has triggered off a new wave of reading. I’m not buying that line. You don’t graduate to reading Middlemarch after being brought up on a diet of Harry Potter, which is neither high literature nor high imagination, once the charm of Quidditch and Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans has worn off. But what does happen is a tendency to want more and more mindless books. Read the HP series? Now, on to Dan Brown. We’re reading books because they’re designated “cool” by the mob.
So, did I rush out at dawn to join the throng of eager parents and children for my copy of Deathly Hallows? Nah, sometimes it’s far more pleasant to sleep in late.
Namita Bhandare will write every other Tuesday on social trends. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org