Can We Hold People Accountable For Not Having the Same Tastes We Have?

J’accuse “Harry Potter”

I should make it clear that I haven’t read any of Harry Potter. But I have friends whose tastes I trust who absolutely love the series. And the writer of the article above does himself no favors in my mind when he says he would have spent less time with the classics when teaching English.

However, his case against our ever-shrinking variety of tastes in a world that seems to be defined by variety is critical.

The reason why it is critical is because there is a deep question about “matters of taste.” Such matters seem trivial at first, i.e. one person doesn’t like food another person likes. Questions of love depend on conceptions of beauty, though – one is probably going to fall in love with someone one considers attractive. Most importantly, questions where morality is indeterminate might be resolved by our capacity to judge on factors that are quite removed from morality.

So matters of taste have a heavy say in matters of love and duty, especially in a world where choosing a religion is said to be a matter of personal preference. Taste regarding appetites, hopes and even perceiving what is necessary are all critical perhaps to our moral formation – they aren’t just something which is debatable in problem cases only.

Ironically enough, the third Harry Potter movie, the “Prisoner of Azkaban,” does an excellent job of addressing our critic’s concerns. Our critic is worried that our tastes are becoming monolithic and thus an excuse for ignorance.

In that movie, though, Professor Snape forces his students to read up on werewolves during another Professor’s class on another topic. Only one student figures out what is going on: it turns out that the other Professor is a werewolf, and that unusual happenings in school can be partly explained by this fact. And there are plenty of other examples in the movie of education occurring not merely in books (which are pretty much how-to manuals for magicians it seems), but in how things are presented.

The most unusual happening involves an escaped prisoner. That mystery forces two of the lead characters to go back in time and set the wrong things right.

And that’s where our critic goes wrong: he thinks that a variety of tastes can exist in a mental vacuum, where people just magically see one thing is better than another by reading lots of different things. But I submit that variety truly comes from a searching for answers to serious questions, questions that involve good and evil and justice and wisdom and what it means to be human. Such a searching discovers variety rather than brings it out of nothing.

My suspicion is that Harry Potter is popular because it is a comment on education and growing up that our academic and critical apparatus cannot make anymore. There are plenty of educated people with cultivated tastes that can only account for how one book is better than another in terms of very particular criteria. It is a more universal need that draws us to books, though, and a need that if not felt will involve a retreat from books.

We need to see cultivating taste as a moral endeavor in order to have better tastes, and that in itself is contentious nowadays. As long as that remains the case, reading is pretty much dead.

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  1. “My suspicion is that Harry Potter is popular because it is a comment on education and growing up that our academic and critical apparatus cannot make anymore.”

    It’s also an engaging fantasy written with a sort of spare, crisp tone that’s very approachable.

    Or at least, that’s why I like it.

    Very nice post.

  2. i quite like harry potter; but then i’ve always been a fan of good children’s books (a, um, taste i’ve picked up from my father)

    the questions you raise are very important. i’m just going to take two here:

    “he thinks that a variety of tastes can exist in a vacuum, where people just magically see one thing is better than another by reading lots of different things.”

    most people have a pretty naive view of the matter of choice. they think that people make choices based on what they “objectively” feel is better/ more beautiful/ healthier (choose your comparative). this is, of course, not at all the case, as every american president can tell you.

    for example, i have wonderful memories of bringing home books from the library as a child and my father and i pouring over the loot, play-fighting over who gets to read what first. thus, my preference for children’s books is in anything but a vacuum.

    i think a lot of this is about “cultivating” in general. i’m tempted to say that we don’t cultivate anymore at all (thinking of, for example, opera, polite manners, logical thinking) but that’s not true. the information age cultivates virtual contacts, TV cultivates consumerism, video games cultivate violence.

    hmm … lots more to think about …

  3. I only have a couple of observations to make and they’re based mostly on the previous comments. Crisp is a very good description for the Harry Potter books, at least for the one I read- yeah, I only read one. I think relatability is a very important part of their widespread popularity. No, not many of us can relate to being a wizard at a wizard school and fighting evil or whatever, but don’t all kids (and I’ll confess to not stopping at childhood) grow up hoping there is something special about them, some purpose, some thing they’re secretly good at or meant to do.

    Preference, in my observation, is about relatability and what we find reflective of ourselves. We see ourselves in a story or a character or another person…

    And our definitions of ourselves definitely stem from our environments. My early love of reading came from my mom, very much like Isabella and her dad, only my mom was more into fantasy/sci-fi/horror and that was my particular jumping board. She and I have considerably different tastes now, but there is so much of her (in practically every aspect of me, not just my reading choices) at the root of most of my judgments about the world and about myself.

    To tie this back to what you’re saying, Ashok, is going to make me sound like an elitist snob and I don’t know how to get away from that.

    I don’t have lofty tastes. I watch Korean soap operas and I love Doritos and Lady Gaga is in my car CD player. I still haven’t found a wine I can stomach, which says nothing for what it does while it’s in my mouth. And I can only lay claim to a slightly higher than average interest in intellectual pursuits. Buuut a vast portion of the country is blatantly anti-intellectual. At some point in the past, I don’t think this shift can be attributed to this generation, some decision was made to be “cool” instead of “intelligent” and that is the environment that has been defining kids growing up and underlying their preferences as adults.

    …I don’t think this explains the popularity of Harry Potter per se as I think it does have some value.

    I’m having a hard time saying what I want to, I hope this at least makes sense.

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