Harry Potter and Your Eventual Obsolesence

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Turn on ABC Family's 25 Days of Christmas programming, and you'll see a lot of what you might expect; classic TV cartoons, claymation specials, great old movies and an odd lot of newer ones. But here's something you might not have expected: the whole thing seems to center around the airing of two Harry Potter films. Not exactly your traditional Christmas fare.

It's all marketing, of course, all corporate synergy. ABC Family wants to boast about a couple of movies that they know will bring press and audience to their lineup (and it has); the distributor of the just-released Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix DVD wants some free advertising to a captive audience; and the Harry Potter franchise as a whole wants to stay fresh in the minds of parents and kids alike this gift-giving season. It's a natural—or at least a commonly unnatural—thing to see happen.


But it suggests something, too. It's official: Harry Potter is the new generation's Star Wars.

This suggests then, that it is not Generation X's Star Wars. We had a Star Wars. It was called Star Wars.

Maybe I'm behind the curve on this, I don't know. Sure, I knew it was a powerhouse of a phenomenon, even as phenomena go. And admittedly, I'm just finishing Book 7 with my eldest daughter, because I waited to read the whole series so I could experience them for the first time right along with her. But I honestly didn't understand the depths of Harry Potter Power.

I think part of this has to do with the fact that a lot of people my age—late 30s—just haven't gotten around to reading Harry Potter. They know the basics, of course, enough to get by. They may have seen one or more of the films, or had a girlfriend or husband who read them and explained most of the plot for them. And now they're at that point where it seems like a waste of time to read the books, since there are no real surprises left. Sort of the way we all keep ourselves from reading Moby Dick. (White whale, Ahab, "Call me Ishmael," got it. I'm good.)

But seriously, anyone who wants to keep up with the times has to read these books. I see my parents—people who could stop seeing Star Wars movies with Empire (all in all not a bad place to stop, really, but that's a point for another time…), and so did. And now, they can't connect to simple references, metaphors, things related to something that's supposed to be in their common consciousness, but isn't. They stopped filling the cultural well. That's something I, for one, am trying my best to avoid.

Cultural obsolescence aside, knowing the books might also keep some adults—a minority, I'll admit, but an annoyingly loud one—from taking Harry Potter the wrong way. Some old friends of mine won't let their kids read the book or see the movies because they have Dark Magic in them. (When I point out that the Bible does too, this curiously doesn't seem to sway them in any way.) And then there were the idiots who raised a flap about Dumbledore's sexual preference—it's much ado about nothing (no offense meant, Albus), grown into something more than it is by the same people who also thought that Tinky Winky was gay, or that Mighty Mouse sniffed cocaine. In this case, Rowling made a mistake in saying it in the first place, only because she should have known some people were going to pick up that hot potato, split it open, slather it in butter and chives, and have it for dinner. But Dumbledore is her character, and any novelist worth their title page knows that there are a lot of things that an author knows about their characters that never make it to the page. They might inform subtext here or there, sure, but they never get spelled out. And that's as it should be. A work of fiction is the tip of the iceberg—there's a huge mass of frozen backstory that never breaks the surface.

There's the flip-side of this argument, of course. I know a few people—intellectuals, most of them, and they won't let you forget it—who have an issue with adults who are Harry Potter fans. I'm not one of them. Any books that get people excited about reading—especially thick books of over seven-hundred pages—are good books, in my opinion. I personally hope that Harry Potter is something of a gateway drug, and that it leads to the harder stuff. Oh, sure, maybe kids start with Rowling, and move to Lloyd Alexander or The Great Brain, but sooner or later, they'll want the harder stuff. Tom Sawyer will lead to Huck Finn. Judy Blume will lead to Ray Bradbury. And eventually, they'll find themselves in a book nook of their own making, sitting in a leather chair under a gooseneck lamp that they bought for the express purpose of reading the latest from Michael Chabon or Richard Russo or Jonathan Lethem.

But even for already-reading grown-ups, Harry Potter is a good thing. The phenomenon that is Harry Potter today will be influencing this new generation in the years to come; it's going to inform the stuff you read, watch, listen to, and experience in the same way that Star Wars references have predominated over the past years. It's inevitable. So if you haven't read Harry Potter yet? You have a little over 4000 pages to catch up on before you're woefully out of the zeitgeist.
-- Teague Bohlen



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