| Look who’s reading
As a reader and a lover of books, I have every good reason to feel grateful to J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter. This is not because I have enjoyed reading the Harry Potter books (I haven’t, to be honest) but because I believe that Rowling and her creation have brought about a minor but significant social revolution.
The revolution consists of this: Harry Potter has brought back a generation of children to books and reading. The conjuncture at which this happened is crucial. There was the looming danger, before Potter hit the publishing world with a bang, that the reading habit among children was on the decline. This was a generation, sociologists opined, that had little interest in the printed word. The young of today prefer the television and the computer. Chatting on the internet has replaced reading in bed.
The phenomenon called Harry Potter completely destroyed such notions. Children across the English-speaking world have devoured the books. The sales figures speak for themselves. Potter has become a cult figure, even though with his round glasses he is the most unlikely cult figure. In the process, Rowling, an unknown writer in a café, is richer than the Queen, the only difference being that Rowling had to work for her fortune. And Bloomsbury, the publisher of the Potter books, has had to set up a special section to mine this El Dorado of the book-world.
What alchemy between Harry and his admirers made this success possible will remain a mystery like all alchemy. What is important is that Harry has got his admirers hooked on to books and reading. And the reading bug, as those of us who have been bitten by it will testify, is a permanent one. There are very good reasons, as I said, for being grateful to Rowling and Potter.
Even if the alchemy is not amenable to analysis, some other aspects of the Potter phenomenon are. Professor Supriya Chaudhuri, on the occasion of the publication of the previous Harry Potter book, had analysed in these columns the clever way in which Rowling exploits classic narrative strategies and draws on elements borrowed from a long tradition of writing for children. Moreover, Rowling creates a magical world in which marginalized people enjoy unusual powers. All these are crowned by a publicity hype and, of course, now by the films that have been made from some of the books.
Rowling’s initial plan was to write a series of seven books. The one now on the bookshelves is the fifth. It is not too early perhaps to raise certain questions, even if they are speculative ones. The genre of children’s fiction is by definition a fluid one in the sense that children read these books, outgrow them and move on to other books. There are exceptions, of course, which are revisited even in adulthood. Alice comes readily to mind as does Ha-Ja-Ba-Ra-La. Children who read these reread them as adults and derive a completely different kind of flavour and pleasure. This is a little different from adults who read the Harry Potter books and enjoy them. There is a distinction between reading a book to find out what children are finding so exciting in it and going back to read a book that one had enjoyed as a child.
The question I am trying to pose is whether Rowling and Potter will withstand the test of time, the all-important test of any book. The test that separates the ordinary from the extraordinary. It is important to remember that there are children’s books which have been read and are being read by generations of young readers. Richmal Crompton’s William books have remained on publishers’ lists from the early 20th century. (It is worth mentioning here in passing that Sushobhan Sarkar, the great teacher of history in Presidency College and a formidable Marxist intellectual, had on his shelves the entire William series. He would readily lend his history books and other scholarly ones, but when I asked if I could borrow a particular William which I hadn’t read, he said those books were not for lending but I was welcome to sit in his home and read the book.)
It is worth staying with the William books for a moment. William Brown is just an energetic and mischievous boy. Adults do not understand him. He and his friends (the Outlaws) and William’s dog, Jumble, run round the small village driving adults, especially William’s parents and his brother Robert and sister Ethel, round the bend. The stories are funny and readers end up loving William as a normal, if somewhat impish, boy. There are no trappings of the magical and there was no publicity hype — no reading sessions, no special launches and signed copies — when Crompton first published. The William books were a celebration of childhood, albeit a male one, even though the author was a woman.
For well over eight decades, the William books have endured and the character has endeared himself. The books are essentially books for children. Very few adults, Professor Sarkar being a remarkable exception, go back to these childhood favourites. The entire corpus of Enid Blyton or Upendrakishore Raychaudhuri would fall into the same set. As would Biggles and Billy Bunter, before the Owl of the Remove fell a victim to stoutism and other forms of nonsense going by the name of political correctness. What is important is that all these books have remained in print for many many years and have nurtured the reading habits of innumerable boys and girls.
Will those who are completely enthralled by Harry Potter’s magic go back to read the books when they are adults' Will they tell their children that their cult, Potter, was better than their children’s icons' Will Potter figure in their nostalgia for a lost innocence' These questions cannot be answered now. But there are straws in the wind. I have heard from some children who are avid Potter fans — by no means a representative sample — that this volume is not as compelling as the previous ones. “Wish she wouldn’t write 800 pages” was the refrain of one intelligent and engaged reader. Moreover, all serious readers and lovers of books will be disturbed by the hooplah that accompanies the publication of every Harry Potter confection. It seems as if the publicity has outrun the content of the book. If the books are that good why the hype' If William sold without hype why won’t Harry'
Will Harry stay the distance' Or will Potter peter out'