Monday, February 26, 2007

Intellectuals to the Left of Me, Wizards to the Right

As the reading world gears up for the final installment of the Harry Potter series, I would like to take the opportunity to do a little self-reflection concerning literary critic Harold Bloom, Harry, and me. Many are aware of the opinions of Yale and NYU professor, revered reader, and aging man of letters Harold Bloom regarding popular fiction and the "dumbing down of our culture" (see WSJ Op-Ed and Boston Globe article). Of course the obvious reaction ensued after Bloom denounced the reading of Harry Potter and its argued literary merits: rabid Potter fans went bonkers and anti-intellectuals and moderate Potter fans felt rebuffed and ambiguously insulted and thus joined the anti-Bloom mob. Where do I fit in all of this? Here is a little background about a obstinate budding intellectual and the young wizard (I'm not the wizard, just to be clear.)

Since the arrival of the first Harry Potter book, I turned a deaf ear to fanfare, hoopla, and the rest of it, believing children's literature should be read by children and not discussed at the grown-ups table. For about 6 years, I avoided all cultural ties to the Potter series -- didn't touch a book, see one of the films or even sit through their trailers, and did my best not to engage in these conversations. Now, after having read the six published Potter books, I cannot recall exactly why, but the whole phenomenon rubbed me the wrong way. Why do adults, whose intellects I respect, read children's literature, and on the other side, why do we believe that children are actually reading 800 page novels? These novels seemed to reside is some literary limbo, hefty reads for adults yet clearly aimed at children. A year ago, I fell ill to some flu and was given the books to read. I admit here and now that I read them all within 3 weeks and cried for the last chapters of the sixth volume due to the death of one of my favorite characters.

And yet, however spellbinding (excuse the pun, seriously, I'm sorry) these books were, however much I wished that I had had the seventh book to immediately flip to, I still remained unconvinced of their literary merit or what they offer kids such as my 6 year old niece, who has all six in hardcover waiting for her on her shelf. As an English major and an admirer of Bloom's I cannot help but agree with the man. Some find him a relic of literati past, in his last throws, strutting and fretting his last hour on Charlie Rose, full of sound and fury; but this is the cowards way out, the anti-intellectual, modern dismissive way out. Those who oppose Bloom's views seem to do so in defense of enjoying what they read, but this argument only exposes their ignorance of Bloom's work and the foundation of his opinions.

Bloom is one of the few academics today who expresses his love for his subject (at great length, admittedly) and has dedicated many of his recent publications to engender this same appreciation in us readers. While his demeanor may be that of an old windbag, he approaches his chosen profession like a child, with admiration for writers and the written word. So when Bloom asks, "Why read, if what you read will not enrich mind or spirit or personality?", of course he sees few other options; this enrichment is exactly what comes of reading Proust, Joyce, Shakespeare, et al. This transcendent reading experience allowed me to finish four years as an undergraduate English Major and a one year Master's program. And I can objectively say that the experience of reading Harry Potter is a non-alcoholic beer compared to the heroin shot that great literature can supply.

Increasingly, as I approach my 25th year, I sense the world of my formative years changing without my input or consent. I am at once a traditionalist and a progressive, tugged with equal force at both ends between the possibilities of the internet and the comfort and stillness of the written word. There remains an enveloping tranquility in sitting near a large, well-stocked bookshelf that no search engine or google's proposed digital library can provide. As a recent NYT article stated:

"Surely we have never read, or written, so many words a day. Yet increasingly we deal in atomized bits of information, the hors d'oeuvres of education. We read not in continuous narratives but by linkage, the movable type of the 21st century. Our appetites are gargantuan, our attention spans anorectic." (full article)

And so I cannot help but agree entirely with Bloom while also pitying the man for his inevitable existence today as an outmoded literary figure. I wouldn't mind if we had a few more left like him to keep us honest and skeptical of the world we are creating for ourselves. Will digital libraries offer the world's knowledge in a click or will it offer it piecemeal, useful only for graduation speeches and last minute term papers? Will the reader of tomorrow, being raised today, be able to sustain the attention span necessary to finish a novel, let alone Ulysses?

But, seriously, all that aside, how pumped are you for Book 7?

Also, if you're interested in a recent book by Harold Bloom that I highly recommend, please pick up his Jesus and Yahweh.

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