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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