As you ought to have expected, the pending release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has finally started to elicit the "Harry Potter's killing literature" laments. Here's one example. I think, as usual, such rueful assessments diagnose the symptoms rather than the disease. So what is this disease? Glibly put, autophobia. Western culture has become profoundly terrified of solitude; people have become so deeply afraid of being alone with themselves that they do everything they can to salve that loneliness, as MySpace, Facebook and other such systems attest all too well. Reading, however, is a solitary activity (at least most of the time). It demands concentration, patience and the willingness to be alone with just a book and oneself. That's why reading and literature have suffered so much in this age in which technology means we never have to be totally alone.
So why is the Harry Potter series such an exception? Because it has become a kind of cultural juggernaut that familiarity with it enjoys one into a huge company of others with conversational currency. It is, after all, the same thing we've seen time and time again over the years-- with Star Wars, E.T., The Lord of the Rings and even specious phenomena like Survivor and The Apprentice. The Rowling books really offer very little insight about literature or about reading and encouraging people to do so; they're symptomatic of a different cultural loneliness that I'm beginning to believe may now be beyond treatment. (Just think of the books' overarching premise: the maturation of a lonely, unappreciated boy into a powerful, destined wizard.) To read the Potter novels at this point is to participate in a collective activity rather than an individual one, and that I think makes all the difference. To read them means to remain current, to engage in a cultural process with others, and, in a curiously utilitarian way, to keep from being on the outside of something deemed to be culturally significant. I'm sure many out there are genuinely interested in what will happen in the last book, but the "must-read" status it has acquired seems to confirm the autophobic anxiety. And yes, it's ironic that the Global Village of networks, connections and "friends" has exacerbated this endemic loneliness, but-- as Henry James, that great defender of loneliness, would say-- There we are.
We'd do well, however, to remember James' caveat in this regard: "Deep experience is never peaceful." There's precious little more genuinely turbulent than solitude, and until we embrace solitude-- to cherish it, to appreciate it-- literature will continue to suffer. And it'll have nothing to do with Harry Potter whatsoever.