Wednesday, July 11, 2007

"Just a Piece of Goo"

Having recently cited Harold Bloom for (among other things) his attack on the Harry Potter craze, I was quickly drawn to the headline of Motoko Rich's piece in today's New York Times: "Potter Has Limited Effect on Reading Habits." By way of introduction, the headline for this post is actually a quote from Bloom, taken from his NewsHour interview with Ray Suarez on August 29, 2000. Here is its context:

I read the first "Harry Potter" book in order to write that piece [for the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal]. I was appalled that every sentence was a string of clichés, that there was no characterization, that every character in it spoke with the voice of every other character, that it was finally just a piece of goo.

Addressing the same issue discussed in today's Times, Suarez that asked whether reading a Harry Potter book was better than reading nothing at all. Bloom's contentious reply was that reading such a book was not really reading:

Their eyes are passing over a page. They are turning the page. Their minds are being numbed by cliché. No demands are being made upon them. Nothing.… Nothing is happening to them. They're being schools in what you might call unreality or the avoidance of reality. They are going in every direction expect inward into the self.

Rich does not deep-end in matters of literature (which is probably just as well) and concentrates on the "raw data" that our government collects for such issues:

Indeed, as the series draws to a much-lamented close, federal statistics show that the percentage of youngsters who read for fun continues to drop significantly as children get older, at almost exactly the same rate as before Harry Potter came along.

Apparently, plus ça change is becoming a leitmotiv on this blog!

Rich assess the problem by examining the "competition" for reading as a leisure activity:

Young people are less inclined to read for pleasure as they move into their teenage years for a variety of reasons, educators say. Some of these are trends of long standing (older children inevitably become more socially active, spend more time on reading-for-school or simply find other sources of entertainment other than books), and some are of more recent vintage (the multiplying menagerie of high-tech gizmos that compete for their attention, from iPods to Wii consoles).

My guess is that Bloom would view those gizmos as a continuation of that schooling in "the avoidance of reality;" and he would definitely have my sympathy on that count. However, what surprised me about Rich's analysis was that there was no mention of the extent to which increased social activity entails increased peer pressure. In other words the Harry Potter story is not so much about literature or reading as it is about marketing. After all, just because a marketing campaign wraps itself in a cloak of educational virtue (however mythic that virtue may be), that does not make the effort any less one of marketing. The greatest flaw in the Rich analysis is that the attention was fixed strictly on the consumer, assuming tacitly that the producer did not have a part in the impact of the product.

Beyond this weakness the Times piece also included one of the most annoying paragraphs I have read this year:

Some reading experts say that urging kids to read fiction in general might be a misplaced goal. “If you look at what most people need to read for their occupation, it’s zero narrative,” said Michael L. Kamil, a professor of education at Stanford University. “I don’t want to deny that you should be reading stories and literature. But we’ve overemphasized it,” he said. Instead, children need to learn to read for information, Mr. Kamil said, something they can practice while reading on the Internet, for example.

Regular readers of this blog should immediately recognize that people need "zero narrative" for their occupation, whatever that occupation may be, is the sort of ludicrous assertion that can come from someone with as much problems with "avoidance of reality" and Harry Potter readers! If Professor Kamil thinks that learning "to read for information" will bring education into a better alignment of the realities of life, then he ought to get off the Stanford campus and become better acquainted with those realities, whether they involve the highest levels of deliberation that take place in Washington, the relationship between a doctor and a critically ill patient, or even what the repair technician does to a broken copy machine. Professor Kamil has demonstrated that the very act of teaching "education" may have more damage on the future of our children than all of those "avoidance of reality" gizmos cited in Rich's article. To paraphrase Talleyrand-Périgord, education is much too serious a matter to be entrusted to academic departments of education!

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