Patrick West

Harry Potter’s dwindling popularity is a great shame

Harry Potter’s dwindling popularity is a great shame
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Teenagers are no longer reading Harry Potter books in their legions, it emerged this week, as J.K. Rowling’s series dropped out of the top ten favourite books for secondary school pupils. Instead, teens are reading books aimed at primary school children. This is disquieting news. Of all the books teenagers can access, they should be reading the Harry Potter books.

They're not perfect, of course. For one, the storylines are derivate: orphan raised by aunt and uncle encounters a bearded old man, goes on an epic journey with his buddies, undergoes tasks and magic training, and defeats ogres before encountering the dark lord in his lair. Our hero emerges victorious! Star Wars anyone? Lord of the Rings? In fairness, all three sagas are manifestations of a monomyth found in most cultures, as outlined by anthropologist Joseph Campbell in his 1949 work The Hero With A Thousand Faces.

Less forgivable are Rowling's transparent metropolitan liberal leanings. Suburbia, where Harry's petty, suspicious and narrow-minded aunt and uncle live, is demonised. Uncle Dursley reads the Daily Mail, of course he does.

Yet there is much that is commendable. J.K. Rowling may be a bit too fond of adverbs, semi-colons and the present participle (verbs ending ‘-ing’), but otherwise the syntax is a treat and a model for those studying English. She combines simple, active voice clauses, plain verbs with a rhythmic, flowing cadence and decorative, advanced vocabulary.

She's an old-school, middlebrow author, a modern-day Agatha Christie. In her transparent prose, words function as a window to the storyline. This is why devotees of literary fiction hate it: they regard words as something to be toyed with, and style more important than story.

Such detractors invariably miss the point. In 2007, the literary critic Nicholas Lezard wrote in the Guardian of ‘prose that reasonably intelligent nine-year-olds consider pretty hot stuff, if they're producing it themselves; for a highly-educated woman like Rowling to knock out the same kind of material is, shall we say, somewhat disappointing.’ Yet the Harry Potter books are precisely meant to impress children. It's like saying primary school teachers should be teaching algebra instead of arithmetic.

She has improved the literacy levels of millions of children. As one Potter-fan – dubbed ‘Potterheads’ – explained on, ‘I was a youth worker (voluntary, part-time) when the Harry Potter series came out. I was working in one of England’s most deprived communities, in East Birmingham. Over a couple of years, I saw kids, who could barely read a sentence out loud without stumbling, get the Harry Potter bug. Six months later, they could read like they were born to it... I think it’s fair to say that Rowling single-handedly saved that generation from illiteracy.’

Harry Potter novels are also ideal for teenagers learning a second language. They are packed with guessable incantations in Latin and pseudo-Latin. Students with a deep knowledge of the storylines could improve their grades by trying out the books in Latin translation. The same goes for French A-Level students and undergraduates in practically any world language. (To improve my own language learning I read Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone in Italian and Catalan.)

The virtues from the Harry Potter books are not merely educational. The stories set a good example for future citizens. With Harry befriending and defending 'muggles', 'mud-bloods', 'half-bloods' – victims of a sort of racism – he instils the virtues of tolerance and understanding. As a 2014 study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology showed, children who read Harry Potter, or any stories in which the protagonists mix with otherwise stigmatised groups, develop improved attitudes in real life towards social outcasts. And the books are ideal for both boys and girls, having strong, active female role-models such as Hermione, Ginny, professor McGonagall, Mrs Weasley and Luna Lovegood.

Yet the liberal, humanistic message of the Harry Potter books isn't laboured or distracting. And who could really argue with them? Being tolerant of people and judging them by their character, not ethnicity, are laudable virtues. There is nothing wrong, either, with strong, active female characters. I started reading the saga so I could share the experience with my Potter-mad nieces; I want them to grow up strong and active.

The books do even more than teach empathy and accepting difference. They show young minds the importance of loyalty and friendship – through thick and thin. They tell us that life is complicated, there is good and bad in us all, and that people can change. They encourage us to be brave and stick up for doing the right thing, even when the right thing is difficult. In short, they prepare children for what lies ahead.