Lying Media Bastards

July 16, 2005

Scooby Dobby Doo

Believe it or not, I’m actually surprised at the lack of Harry Potter stories in the news lately.

When the last book in the series was released, I remember the news media hyping the book and its fans and the anticipation for at least a week in advance. This time it looks like they actually waited till the day before the book’s release. Well, in the US, anyway. It might have gotten more hype in Britain, what with the country’s Harry Potter-centric economy.

But here’s a point for us all to muse over: why the hell are these books so popular? Publishers have never seen anything like it. They are only slightly less popular than the Bible. Young kids who hate reading devour these books and then return to watching bad teen dating shows on MTV.

I do enjoy the books and have read them many times, but I have a deeper emotional connection to them than most folks. They were one of the only things that both my mom and I enjoyed (things = movies, TV shows, music, food, books, etc.); she got me into them. And I think because it was a rare connection between us, we both magnified our enjoyment of them a bit. For my mom, who was spending half her days in chemotherapy and the other half recovering, I’m sure the idea that someone was going to arrive at the door with a broomstick or flying car to whisk her away to a realm of magic had great appeal. And since she died, I’ve found some comfort in re-reading these books, like when I read the words I get to hold a piece of her for a little while. Well, that’s not exactly it, but I think you can see how that makes the books important to me.

Anyhow.

At their core, the books are really a series of expanded Scooby Doo mysteries, where the young wizard detectives take a whole school year to discover that the scary swamp monster is actually Old Man Higgins, who would’ve gotten away with it, if it weren’t for those meddling kids, and that house elf (although Old Man Higgins wouldn’t be running around in a monster costume; in these books, Old Man Higgins would probably be a real swamp monster).

The writing is pretty good, the mysteries actually work pretty well (no cheap shots), there’s whimsy and there’s darkness, the typical coming-of-age “the adults treat the children like children, but the kids can really handle it” feel, and lasting themes highlighting class, race and sweatshop labor.

But still, nothing is so out of the ordinary about these books to justify their international phenomenon. I did read an essay which argued that the book’s popularity dealt with a British need to redefine their national identity to themselves, which made sense when I read it, but that fails to explain why kids in Kansas City and Munich and Beijing like them too.

So there’s a little sociological discussion question for the weekend. Not “why do kids like Harry Potter?”, but why does Harry Potter appeal so strongly to so many kids? Is there something there, or is it just a case of miraculous marketing?

Posted by Jake on July 16, 2005 12:12 am

7 Comments »

  1. I’m 17. I like Harry Potter because of a wish that something similar would happen to me - that somebody would come and take me to another world. Sad, I know.

    Comment by pointfour — July 17, 2005 @ 2:55 am

  2. It’s not sad, I think it’s a very important part of it’s appeal for a lot of people. Honestly, I wasn’t as excited about this book as I was about the last. Maybe it was the lack of hype, but I don’t watch TV anymore. Maybe it’s because I’m older now. Probably both.

    Comment by a person — July 17, 2005 @ 3:45 pm

  3. Witchcraft, Jake. The kids, they like the black arts.

    Or, it could be that Harry Potter has plugged into a zeitgeist that was just looking for something appropriately escapist, something that had all the classic trappings of broad appeal, action, kids, shiny things, made-up words. For the same reason that Star Wars tapped in to people wanting to get away from the sturm & drang of the 70s, perhaps people now look to Harry Potter as a way of escaping. Can’t hurt that Rowlings keeps the vocabulary below college, and the hero is a lovable white kid.

    But my vote’s on the witchcraft.

    Comment by King Mob — July 17, 2005 @ 7:18 pm

  4. I dunno about marketing. All the evidence I see is that the Harry Potter craze is very word of mouth. Or at least its seeds were. The first burst of marketing came from the “Harry Potter is evil” whackos, and then later with the movies.

    I would have to disagree on the Scooby Doo analogy. Scooby and company literally feel like cardboard cutouts, and the plot feels the same every week. HP characters have much more depth and realism, an advancing plot, and grow with time. The story has an attention to detail and richness of the environment that isn’t tedious. In short, her stories aren’t *boring* like most everything out there.

    A lot of kids probably find a lot of written fiction tedious and boring, relaying small bits of information that are irrelevant to the story at hand.

    One major flaw I do know is that the first 40 pages or so of the first book are a bit slow, I know several people, including myself, who “didn’t get it” 20 or 30 pages in and just put the book down.

    One other aspect I like as well is that damn, the storyline has gotten dark and disturbing in the last 3 books, particularly the end of #4 and #6. The characters grow up and become much less innocent as things progress (and I’m not talking about excessive snogging in Book 6)

    JKR is no Tolkien, but it’s a hell of a lot better than Scooby and I’m less likely to switch to the next channel when her work comes on.

    Comment by Trevor — July 18, 2005 @ 2:32 pm

  5. I’m almost 22 and i love those books plainly for their entertaining qualities. However i think it appeals so strongly to children and people because of a lack of magic in their lives. Life isn’t any easier than it was 100 or 1000000 years ago the only differance is that now people are more aware of the state of the world. Don’t think the children don’t know.
    Besides i think it’s better for children to get excited about a book than a playstation game.

    Comment by buddahspider — July 18, 2005 @ 8:51 pm

  6. i’m 29. They’re fun, heart-wrenching (i cried for a good 5 minutes finishing this last book) and they’re realistic in an unrealistic world. There is enough modern-world connect in the books to make the hero realistic, but enough imaginary-world to make it readable. (as in book 5 — the whole Umbridge fiasco, with surveillence and corrupt governments — makes it palatable to read this stuff that’s actually going on in our real life without having to resort to some dry ‘factual’ books — i mean you CAN and should, but it isn’t something people like to do, you know? well, most people…).

    They’re also emotionally engaging, where so many children’s and adults books are definitely not, again, to most people. The last book that made me feel like this was when I was 5. Long time ago.

    And also, a lot of people do have emotional connections with the book and their lives. Mine revolves around losing my grandfather, who was essentially my father in many respects — the first book had come out a few months after he died and i immediately saw him in the character of dumbledore.

    I’m sure everybody has their own stories about why they love it so much. I’m not sure the media is entirely responsible for why it has become so popular.

    Comment by margaret — July 19, 2005 @ 2:34 pm

  7. Harry Potter is popular as it gives children and adults alike a chance to taste power over their environment without having to undertake any of the real work required for genuine achievement.

    Comment by MilkTray — July 20, 2005 @ 12:46 am

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