Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Harry Potter: False Messiah

I watched Harry Potter number 7 with family today and noticed I didn't have the same fervor I had for it in High School. I had to force myself to get into that old mindset to sit through the 2 1/2 hour movie. In retrospect, that wasn't a good idea. Reality seemed so bleak afterwards. I'm still not fully back.

When the Harry Potter books first came onto the scene, parents and educational experts were stunned by their popularity. Reading had been on the decline for years, losing ground steadily to visual media. Suddenly though, kids were reading again. It was nothing short of a miracle. Theories were advanced to explain it, from the most silly to the most scientific sounding. "J.K. Rowling has created a witchcraft cult!" "Don't be ridiculous, children's brains have their visual centers much more developed than previously, Ms. Rowling's visually imaginative writing taps into that. Writers need to start to copy this style to engage kids." Well, if I had to choose one, I'd say it has more to do with the first reason than with the second.

Western society, with all it's psychological breakthroughs in parenting is just as competitive as ever. In fact, with religious observance down (and with it, it's so-called "slave values"), and increasing sources of media streaming visions of so many other people's fantastic monetary success and excess, I'd say competition is ratcheting itself up every year. However, unlike in previous generations, it is easy to gain temporary relief from this stress: Television. TV shows transport the viewer into a fantasy universe where they are free from their daily stresses. They have supporting friends and family, they have control over their lives, they can make a real difference in the world. [To a child, reliance on this escape can be very detrimental in learning to cope with the natural stresses of life. They haven't learned how to deal with more basic challenges, so they have immense difficulty coping with ones that compound those stressors with others. Add  to this that they first have to unlearn the old coping strategy and you can imagine the magnitude of the problem.]

What J.K. Rowling did was create a fantasy world fitted exactly to children. Like Dr. Seuss in his time, this world did not exist anywhere else before she thought it up. The escape was so much richer than anything in books or on TV. As Harry Potter, you are powerful, even though you're just a kid. You have supporting friends. You used to be abused and treated horribly, but now there is an entire hidden world that respects and adores you. And all because of an inborn specialness; you didn't have to earn it. All you have to do is have fun at cool classes, play a sport that you're the Best at, and have girls lining up for you. Mysterious fun things await you at every turn.

A common mistake is that books actually create a more real environment because they involve the mind more. That's incorrect. Books involve different parts of the brain than TV. They cost the mind's imaginative and rational faculties more energy to create the illusion they are going for in whatever story they are trying to portray. While that may be beneficial in that it develops those aspects of the brain, it detracts from the 'submersive' element of the story portrayed. Audio-visual media immediately transports it's viewers into it's world. To the person, it is more similar to reality than a novel because it doesn't rely on the brain to provide thoughts to stimulate the two main senses, sight and sound. Since the point is escape from the anxiety of reality and not learning, Television is usually preferred by people. However, if the book provides the fuller escape, as in the case of Harry Potter, it is preferred.

It's no matter if the books reach over 800 pages. The purpose is escape from anxiety; a more realized escape from pain is worth infinitely more than a lesser escape. And the longer the escape lasts, the better.

Make no mistake: this isn't a revolution in reading, it's a 'revolution' only in tapping into modern children's  psychology. Now that the zeitgeist has been explored, expect TV and movies to follow. What? Is my prophecy too late? Oh well. I guess you can just call me Professor Hindsight.


  1. It is true that the best way to get children to read is to give them something to read that is worth it to them, and that is what Rowling did. It is also worth it to me, a 62 year old mother, and what I enjoy most in the Harry Potter books are the philosophical ideas. Interestingly, some of those ideas seem to boil down to: Magic is really hard to do and isn't hardly worth going to Hogwarts to try to learn it, learn music instead, or how to use electric or electronic things, etc.

  2. "Strange how nearsighted being invisible can make you," said Dumbledore, and Harry was relieved to see that he was smiling.

    "So," said Dumbledore, slipping off the desk to sit on the floor with Harry, "you,like hundreds before you, have discovered the delights of
    the Mirror of Erised."

    "I didn't know it was called that, Sir."

    "But I expect you've realized by now what it does?"

    "It -- well -- it shows me my family --"

    "And it showed your friend Ron himself as head boy."

    "How did you know --?"

    "I don't need a cloak to become invisible," said Dumbledore gently. Now, can you think what the Mirror of Erised shows us all?"

    Harry shook his head.

    "Let me explain. The happiest man on earth would be able to use the Mirror of Erised like a normal mirror, that is, he would look into it
    and see himself exactly as he is. Does that help?"

    Harry thought. Then he said slowly, "It shows us what we want... whatever we want..."

    "Yes and no," said Dumbledore quietly. "It shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts. You, who have
    never known your family, see them standing around you.

    Ronald Weasley, who has always been overshadowed by his brothers, sees himself standing alone, the best of all of them.

    However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge or truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is
    real or even possible.

    The Mirror will be moved to a new home tomorrow, Harry, and I ask you not to go looking for it again. If you ever do run across it, you will now be prepared.

    It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that.

    Now, why don't you put that admirable cloak back on and get off to bed?"


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