One Step Back: The Effects of Harry Potter on Adult Literacy

The news that it has been 20 years since the first book in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was published has been all over the media this week. The novel was conceived by Rowling, an unemployed, single mother, during a delayed train journey from Manchester to London in 1990, and took a further 7 years to write and eventually publish. So far, the series has been translated into 69 languages and sold in excess of 400 million copies worldwide – far exceeding Bloomsbury’s projections, who initially released just 1,000 copies of the Philosopher’s Stone back in 1997.

As a child, I read all of the books in the series, and enjoyed them immensely. I was born in ’96, and I remember getting my copy of the final instalment, the Deathly Hallows, the day of its release in 2007. At that point I was 11 years old.

As I was doing my usual morning scroll down my Twitter feed I stumbled across a photograph of the curators of the British Library proudly clutching their ‘well-loved copies of the book – in fact, the British Library dedicated most of today’s tweets to Harry Potter! It seemed bizarre to me that adults, the majority of whom appeared to have been at least in their late teens in 1997, so proudly declaring their love for a children’s book.

In a piece about Rowling and her first publication in 1997, The Sunday Times’ Eddie Gibb highlights that the Philosopher’s Stone is aimed at the 9-13 age group – it is a novel for children. Yet, the amount of adults who indulge in the works, seemingly unaware that the book in their hands is targeted towards readers more than half their age, never fails to amaze me.

Of course, this does not apply to those who read the books initially at a young age – I still love the movie Dumbo because it evokes memories that hark back to my childhood. In fact, I even have a large, plush Dumbo toy that my boyfriend gave to me for Christmas (although, granted, my initial response was “now what am I going to do with this…). No – it is the notion of adults actively seeking out a children’s book to occupy their bedside table that I can’t quite comprehend.

Before you dismiss this viewpoint as an act of sheer snobbery, just consider – what could the effect of this be on literature as a whole?

Yes, each of the novels has been published as both a ‘children’s’ and ‘adult’s’ version – but what has struck me as interesting for a while is exactly what the difference between the two is.

Answer: the cover.

Bloomsbury published the Harry Potter novels in two formats to save adults the shame of being seen reading a children’s book (or rather, reduce the shame by replacing the vibrant covers with a darker, more demure scheme of colour) – much like the old joke of the so called ‘intellectual’ concealing their copy of the Beano within the dust jacket of Proust.

Now I’m not saying that it is ‘shameful’ for an adult to read a children’s book – shame is something that is felt by an individual, and is in no way a cause of my highlighting one’s reading material as being that of someone who is just starting high school. But the truth of the matter is, that is the reason for the adult editions of Harry Potter being printed in the first place.

My question is, what are the implications of this on literature as a whole?

Yes – Rowling’s novels are well written, easy to follow, and simultaneously coherent and intricate so far as plot is concerned. The characters are well crafted, and the theme of magic is one that appeals to many. Yet there are several novels out there that reach, if not exceed such criteria, but are neglected in favour of a children’s novel. The novel that I am currently reading – Joyce Carol Oates’ Bellefleur – is a magic realist novel, exploring many of the themes of Rowling’s novels (prophecy, telekineses, curses) across seven generations of one family, the Bellefleurs, who all reside simultaneously on an estate in New York that defies both the linear and physical restraints of time. It is not the themes that differ, but the style of writing.

If you stumbled across a grown adult on the bus fingering a copy of Winnie-The-Pooh (a book similarly targeted at the 9-13 age group), you would wonder why someone of such an age was reading what is so plainly a children’s book, both in theme and tone. Perhaps this is an extreme example, as the themes in Winnie-The-Pooh are far younger than those in Harry Potter. Yet both works are targeted at the same audience (to clarify, not 40 year old adults)!

Perhaps this is an effect of technological developments, which have arguably made our lives easier, especially over the last few decades. Is it the case now that we need literature to be reduced to the level that we previously thought acceptable for children?

In a first-year university drama class only last year, we were required to watch Tabletop Shakespeare at the Barbican. The production comprised of a series of Shakespeare plays, acted out by a performer seated behind a table of household objects (sauce bottles, toilet rolls etc.), each of which depicted a different character. I found this to be quite insulting; to eliminate all personality and emotion from the characters reduced the Bard’s creations to a set of stage directions (A to B to C, and so on…) Yet, one girl in the class revealed that she thought such simplification necessary because, “people nowadays struggle to understand Shakespeare.” I shot right in and questioned where that left us, if instead of trying to access the works we rely upon someone else to do it and spoonfeed to us their simplified version.

And that’s not me declaring my love for Shakespeare (personally, I can give or take him) or suggesting that I’m in any way better educated than anyone else, rather highlighting the notion that, instead of tackling a challenge head on, we have become accustomed to taking the ‘easy way out’.

If we’re now willing to reduce adult’s books to the style previously written for children, how far are we willing to go…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *