Friday 4 October 2019

Harry Potter and the poorly-read exorcists

It’s Banned Books Week — more evidence that banning books is about as useless as trying to ban air.

When the Rev. Dan Reehil, a Catholic priest, ordered the removal of all Harry Potter books from the parish school’s library, the St. Edward community demanded an explanation. Father Reehil responded by email, noting that he had “consulted several exorcists, both in the United States and in Rome,” and had been assured that the “curses and spells used in the books are actual curses and spells; which when read by a human being risk conjuring evil spirits into the presence of the person reading the text.”

I read all seven Harry Potter books aloud to all three of my children, one at a time, as they became old enough to understand the books’ complicated plots, so I understand why Father Reehil’s explanation assuaged no parental concerns. Exorcists? Real spells? No wonder the story became international news almost as soon as The Tennessean broke it. Articles about the incident have appeared in outlets as diverse as The Washington Post, CBS News, Entertainment Weekly, The Independent in Britain, and Forbes, among many others.

Before I heard this story, I would not have thought it necessary to point out that Harry Potter is a fictional character and that these books are not spellbooks. They are novels, tales J.K. Rowling made up out of her prodigious imagination.
Daniel Becerril/Reuters

Harry Potter and his friends don’t exist in real life, but they wrestle with real-life challenges: bullies, rejection, loneliness, fear, grief — and, yes, with clueless adults whose behavior is patently ludicrous. Nashville’s St. Edward School might as well be Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, for the story of Father Rehill sounds very much like the story of Delores Umbridge, a Ministry of Magic bureaucrat-turned-school-inquisitor.

Ms. Rowling may well be a magician, but the magic she conjures is far more wonderful than even the spells in her books: She got kids to read again. And perhaps grown-ups, too — I often found myself reading deep into the night, long after the child beside me had fallen asleep, merely for the pleasure of Ms. Rowling’s translucent prose and extravagant world-building.

There was a time when the Harry Potter titles were routinely targets of a challenge, the American Library Association’s term for an attempt to remove books from a library or school curriculum. The first three volumes were among the most challenged books of the decade that began in 1990, even though they weren’t published in the United States until midway through 1999. By the following decade, the series was at the very top of the list.

According to “Don’t Tell the Grownups,” Alison Lurie’s groundbreaking 1990 exploration of the way classic children’s literature has always undercut convention, “Most of the great works of juvenile literature are subversive in one way or another: they express ideas and emotions not generally approved of or even recognized at the time; they make fun of honored figures and piously held beliefs; and they view social pretenses with cleareyed directness, remarking — as in Andersen’s famous fairy tale — that the emperor has no clothes.”

Little surprise, then, that two decades of efforts to protect children from imaginary spells have made no difference at all. Harry Potter titles have sold more the 500 million copies worldwide.

As it happens, this is Banned Books Week in the United States, so the timing of Father Rehill’s ban is richly ironic, but Harry and his friends are no longer the chief targets of book-banning adults, presumably because most adults are now aware that attempting to keep children from reading Harry Potter is about as effective as banning air. These books have already thrilled an entire generation of readers, and it’s only a matter of time before they become a powerful source of nostalgia for young parents eager to pass on the stories they had loved so much as children.

Because that’s what it’s truly about: love. The best children’s literature isn’t an attempt to teach children anything, good or bad. Children don’t read Harry Potter to learn incantations. They read Harry Potter because the stories are absorbing — intricate and exciting and funny — and because reading them makes real life seem more magical. All the children I know went to sleep the night before their 11th birthday half convinced an owl would arrive after midnight, swoop in their bedroom window, and drop an invitation to Hogwarts on their bed.

The gift of brilliant fiction, for children and adults, is the way it blurs the line between what has happened and what can happen. When a book comes to life in a reader’s imagination, the reader is changed, and so the fictional world enters the world of reality in a profound alchemical reaction that changes the nature of reality itself, though not in the way Father Rehill imagines. Because people who read fiction consistently score higher on tests that measure empathy and altruism than those who don’t, it’s no huge leap to believe that Harry Potter has made the world a better place.

Parents and religious leaders will no doubt continue to try to keep “objectionable” books out of libraries, but they will be no more successful at keeping children from reading those books than they have ever been. I was a high-school senior, and my sister was in 6th grade when our mother found a copy of Judy Blume’s “Forever” in our shared bedroom. Ms. Blume’s books are frequently challenged, and “Forever” was no exception, featuring a teen protagonist who has sex for the first time. On purpose. With forethought and birth control.

My parents never made any attempt to censor my own reading, but the outcry over “Forever” must have gotten to Mom. Lori was too young, she thought, for a book with a sexually active heroine, and she asked me to downplay its appeal: “She won’t listen to me, but she’ll listen to you,” she told me.

Later that morning, I picked up the well-thumbed book, one my sister had borrowed from a friend. “I heard this isn’t a very good book,” I said without much conviction.

“It’s a great book,” my sister said. “I’ve already read it twice.”

(Source: NYT)

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