When we think about the respect for “private reading” that Betty Carter calls for in her article on page 525, what tends to come to mind first is the quiet book, or the book that broaches an intimate problem or topic. But the excellence of Betty’s point is demonstrated no better than by a very public and extroverted favorite: Harry Potter.
The latest Harry (see review) is just out as I write this. I’ve been seeing those young executives Howard Jacobson complains about (see Madelyn Travis’s report from the UK) lost in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince on the subway. This is public reading indeed.
But the thing about Harry Potter is, you want to read it for yourself. Even within families or among friends, sharing a copy means a begrudging taking of turns, not a communal reading aloud. While Anticipating Harry and Hashing Over Harry are by now cooperative activities on a worldwide scale, Reading Harry is something that people want to do all by themselves. And they don’t want a single hint about what the book might have in store for them. There was quite a little tempest on the childlit listserv when one contributor made reference to a major plot point in the first line of a message, thus “spoiling” the story for several aggrieved others. Grown-up others.
Not only are adults and children reading Harry Potter with equal enthusiasm, I would argue that they are reading it in precisely the same way: for the story, for the re-acquaintance with fictional friends, and for the cultural currency that J. K. Rowling mints. We could — as I have — join with Howard Jacobson to take this as evidence of adult soft-headedness, but we can also, and without contradiction, look at what it says about the literary life of children. We conventionally think of “reading for fun” as something children do naturally, forgetting both that learning to read is a key job of childhood, and that parents, teachers, and publishers are frequently guilty of making reading a whole lot of work. But given the opportunity — and the right book — children will read like grownups. They will read for reading’s intrinsic pleasures. Our own enjoyment of Harry Potter should remind us that, given the chance, young readers aren’t so different from ourselves. Reading for fun is what readers do.
From the September/October 2005 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.