Connecting Readers and Books

by Dean Mattson

There was yet another high profile Harry-Potter-makes-no-difference column published this week, this time in the Washington Post by their book editor Ron Charles.

Mr. Charles is clearly not a Potter fan, but he’s particularly nasty to those that are, observing of adult readers of the series, “I’d like to think that this is a romantic return to youth, but it looks like a bad case of cultural infantilism.”

Oh, my!

But halfway through, he stumbles across something. “With the release of each new volume, Rowling’s readers have been driven not only into greater fits of enthusiasm but into more precise synchronization with one another.” Charles dismisses this as opposed to the solitary pleasure reading should be, but often half the fun of enjoying any art form is sharing your experience with other who know what you’re talking about, especially those that are experiencing it at the same time you are.

Finally Charles starts making sense:

The schools often don’t help, either. As I look back on my dozen years of teaching English, I wish I’d spent less time dragging my students through the classics and more time showing them how to strike out on their own and track down new books they might enjoy. Without some sense of where to look and how to look, is it any wonder that most people who want to read fiction glom onto a few bestsellers that everybody’s talking about?

That’s right. And his basic point is correct: If anyone is expecting a reading revival just because of the Harry Potter phenomenom, you’re expecting too much. It not going happen because of the simple fact that there’s so many other games in town now.

Where I differ with Charles is I don’t blame the Potter audience. If nothing else, J. K. Rowling has proved that readers are out there. So has Oprah Winfrey who, as Charles rightly notes, gets millions of Americans to read serious fiction that even he approves of.

How do they do it? Although in different ways, both Rowling and Winfrey have succeeded in creating communities around books. They’ve provided common touchstones that provide people with something to organize conversations around.

When I buy a book, it’s almost always because someone I trust has liked it and told me enough about it so I’m reasonably sure I’m going to like it too. It just so happens that they’re recommending non-fiction books much more often than fiction ones.

I’m not opposed to reading fiction. I don’t feel obligated to read it either. Nobody’s going to get me to pick up a book because it’s something I’m supposed to read, you’re going to have to get me to want to read it.

If the book industry (and book critics like Mr. Charles) view Harry Potter as nothing but a fluke, they’re making a huge mistake. It’s really a huge opportunity. They just need to figure out new ways to make connections between readers and books. Clearly the readers are out there.