I'd like to think that this is a romantic return to youth, but it looks like a bad case of cultural infantilism. And when we're not horning in on our kids' favorite books, most of us aren't reading anything at all. More than half the adults in this country won't pick up a novel this year, according to the National Endowment for the Arts. Not one. And the rate of decline has almost tripled in the past decade.
That statistic startles me, even though I hear it again and again. Whenever I confess to people who work for a living that I'm a book critic, I inevitably get the same response: "Imagine being able to sit around all day just reading novels!" Then they turn to each other and shake their heads, amazed that anything so effete should pass for a profession. (I can see it in their eyes: the little tufted pillow, the box of bonbons nearby.) "I don't read fiction," they say, suddenly serious. "I have so little time nowadays that when I read, I like to learn something." But before I can suggest what one might learn from reading a good novel, they pop the question about The Boy Who Lived: "How do you like 'Harry Potter'?"
Of course, it's not really a question anymore, is it? In the current state of Potter mania, it's an invitation to recite the loyalty oath.
Every time I tell someone I'm a writer, I get the Harry Potter question: What do I think of the books? My answer is invariably, "Nothing at all, because I've never read any of them." I'm a busy woman, and my novel-reading isn't determined by popular vote. I'm not very interested in juvenile literature and fantasy stories, so I've never been curious enough about the Harry Potter doorstops to pick up one and read the back-cover copy, let alone actually open the book.
We commonly hear that J.K. Rowling's work has motivated kids and even adults to read fiction. But where's the evidence for that? From what I can tell, nobody's been reading anything but Harry Potter books. If the series has truly whetted our culture's appetite for novel-reading, we should have already noticed an upswing in non-Harry fiction sales. After all, it's been ten years since the world first met the young wizard. And we should be hearing talk of other novels at kids' soccer games and at our office water coolers.
But that's not happening, is it?
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