On J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter Books

Harry Potter.

It’s interesting how things circle back around. In the 2000s, when Harry Potter was more omnipresent in the zeitgeist (because the books were still being written and coming out, as well as the first movies beginning in 2001), the outrage over the books, and particularly the fact that they were being read by children, primarily came from … fundamentalist Christian conservatives. Of course, their “concern” was that J.K. Rowling’s series about a boy with a scar on his forehead realizing he’s a wizard and there’s an entire wizarding world seeing him as The Boy Who Lived (against the Hitler of the wizarding world, Voldemort) was that it was based on witchcraft and sorcery; ergo, it’s evil.

As one parent put it, “It is the duty of Christian parents to oppose Harry Potter since the Bible condemns witchcraft (Deuteronomy 18:9-12) and tells Christians to “avoid every kind of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:22).Atlanta educator John Andrew Murray in Citizen, a magazine of the Focus on the Family fundamentalist organization, in 1999.

I mean, there was an entire subgenre in magazines about whether it was okay for Christians to read Harry Potter. And there’s an entire Wikipedia article about the religious debates over Harry Potter. I don’t need to rehash all of it here, but suffice to say, it was salient and real-world salient.

Since 1999 when the first book was published and distributed in the United States, they’ve been controversial and in some places in the country, even banned in libraries, as recounted by the American Library Association here.

Today, I imagine much of that ire persists from the right (a Catholic school banned the books as recently as 2019), the ire now comes from the left. To be clear, the right and the left aren’t equal in their admonishment of the Harry Potter books. Because, as far as I can tell, nobody on the left is actively trying to censor the books and that’s an important, worthwhile distinction for “intellectual freedom fighters,” as the ALA calls it.

Now, you may be ready to come at me with, actually, here’s this Newsweek article about TikTok users burning her books. Obviously, that’s reprehensible. I find the idea of burning books, even truly offensive books, disgusting. But, I still think there’s a measurable distinction between one of the most powerful organizations in the United States, Focus on the Family, marshalling its ire against Harry Potter and it having real-world consequences versus random people on TikTok being morons.

Moreover, the ire isn’t so much directed at the content of the books (although that happens, too, more on that in a moment), but the author of the books, J.K. Rowling, particularly in these last few years as she continues to never stop Tweeting and writing about her rather grotesque views on trans rights, usually centered around the “bathroom” debate.

Here’s what I would argue about the J.K. Rowling portion of the ire: People are well within their right, and in a lot of ways, justified, to be upset with J.K. Rowling as a person.

However, that in and of itself, isn’t a reason to not read Harry Potter. There’s no hard and fast rule I have about whether one can divorce the creator from their content, as I could imagine a scenario where I would be unable to, but generally speaking, I don’t think there’s anything (to use the word) problematic with still enjoying Harry Potter while disagreeing vehemently with J.K. Rowling’s views. We are human beings capable of complexities and nuance, thus able to hold both views on our heads. They are not mutually exclusive.

In fact, a recent controversy was that of Dr. Seuss’ work because the business who manages his books said they would pull six of the author’s children’s books due to racist stereotypes and offensive content. That sent the right aflame with “woke mobs trying to ruin Dr. Seuss” and such. But of course, that business can do whatever it wants with its own property. But the applicable point here is, whatever one thinks about Dr. Seuss as a person, that doesn’t mean you can’t read Green Eggs and Ham to your child.

As for the Harry Potter book content itself, there’s been a slew of charges lobbed at the books for similarly racist stereotypes and offensive content. The two that come to mind are the depiction of the goblins who run the wizarding bank, Gringotts Wizarding Bank, and Cho Chang’s name, the girlfriend of Harry Potter at one point. The former is cited as an example of anti-Semitism, while the latter is self-explanatory.

I’m not going to argue against those interpretations because I can see how someone could arrive at them.

I’ve now made it 791 words without discussing what I actually came here this morning to discuss. What bugs me about the discourse surrounding J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter isn’t any of the aforementioned. Fundamentalists Christians are going to try to censor books and “intellectual freedom fighters” ought to always guard against such efforts in the public space. Those of the left who burn books are gross, but the ones who have objections to J.K. Rowling, the author, and what they view as offensive content and stereotypes in her book, they are well within their right to do so.

So, we have that settled, right? Right.

Where I vehemently disagree with people is when they try to denigrate Harry Potter itself. No, I’m not qualified to, nor would I, argue that they are the ~best books ever~, nor would I argue that J.K. Rowling is ~among the most important and/or talented writers ever~ or anything like that.

Have you heard the meme, I’m begging you to read a different book? That’s about Harry Potter. Often, it’s used in the context of people who analogize real-world politics to the events of Harry Potter, which is often silly, but I think it also applies to a general annoyance with the books.

In the Twitter world, it’s become fashionable, I think, to look down one’s nose at those (usually adults) who still love Harry Potter and talk about that love. Related thought, you also see this with people who denigrate adults who love Disney World.

I am 32-years-old. I re-read the Harry Potter series in 2015 and am itching to do it again because it’s about that time for a re-read. They are the only books (seven in total) I’ve ever re-read, aside from toddler-level books, of course.

Unashamedly, I love Harry Potter. I love the books. I think they are a classic book series and one that will stand the test of time.

But more importantly than that, I guess the reason I get frustrated with that “looking down their nose” at Harry Potter mentality is that, consider this binary, albeit ridiculous, hypothetical: Would you rather live in a world without the Harry Potter books or with the Harry Potter books?

In my opinion, I choose the latter every single time and not only for my selfish enjoyment. Rather, would anyone dispute that those books are responsible for quite literally millions of people picking up a book(s) and enjoying reading for perhaps the first time? And specifically, for getting children to love reading? Perhaps Harry Potter was their “gateway” book series and now they’re enjoying the myriad other books out there. Perhaps they were adults who forgot their love of reading after having it stamped out of them in K-12 (I digress) or who never had the family structure or privilege to read, but Harry Potter set it aflame.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that there’s been some pushback on what I’m arguing here. That the series didn’t actually change the reading habits of young children. But as the article points out, when have you ever heard of children lining up for a midnight release of a book hundreds of pages long? That they would eagerly then devour over the next 24 hours?

They point to the fact that kids simply read less as they age and even Harry Potter’s magic can’t reverse that curse, but I would proffer the argument I digressed on above about K-12. To be sure, the article also makes the worthwhile point that children need a structure in place that fills in the gaps between the release of the books (at the time) and then allows for a follow-through once the series is over.

Whatever the case on aggregate numbers of young readers in America, it does seem one has to acknowledge, even if it was a one-and-done scenario, the books got a lot of young people to obsessively read and enjoy (quite large) books.

Recently, I wrote a post about not yucking someone’s yum and I don’t get the yucking of people’s yum around Harry Potter. Maybe to the “read another book crowd,” those who like Harry Potter come across like another meme, the vegan who you know is a vegan because they will tell you.

I don’t know, but whatever the case, I think the Harry Potter books, whatever one thinks of J.K. Rowling or some unfortunate choices in the books, have been a net positive for the world. Is that a grandiose statement? When the series sells 500 million copies worldwide, of which 180 million in the United States alone, I don’t think that’s grandiose at all. Much less the success of the film franchise to boot.

Is that an odd way to look at books? A binary, silly hypothetical? Some sort of utilitarian calculation? Maybe.

But the reason I think about it that way is because literacy is important and reading is beautiful and if someone can get more kids to enjoy reading, even if it is a moment in time or it hopefully becomes a gateway into lifelong reading, or gets adults to re-discover or learn for the first time, the joy of reading, then I think that’s a credit to the books’ existence.

I’m thankful for that.

So, yes, to close out the meme, I have read other books, but I still love Harry Potter (and I should note, nothing in my lifetime will likely ever match the excitement I felt at those midnight releases and the subsequent day spent reading) and I eagerly look forward to re-reading it again (and again).

5 thoughts

  1. Oh I couldn’t agree more… I’ve got the first two MinaLima editions, and they’re gorgeous. I’m almost afraid to read them because they’re so completely beautiful and I’d hate to ruin them. But I got them for Christmas and I’m aching to reread all the books again. There isn’t another series out there that excites me more. I’ve been to a few HP conferences and those are a blast. J.K. Rowling is a genius in my eyes.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is very thoughtful and sensible post. I, too, loved the Harry Potter books when I was a kid. I remember eagerly waiting for the fourth book to come out, and reading the whole thing in under 24 hours when I finally got it.

    I think the “read another book” line comes from people who are just exhausted with seeing reference after reference to the series. And, I admit, I feel that exhaustion too, sometimes. It’s less so now, but a few years ago it seemed like Potter references were everywhere. Which makes sense, as it’s a cultural touchstone for our generation.

    While they’re not my favorite books anymore; like you, I am glad they exist, and I still get nostalgic when I think about how much fun I had reading them way back when. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read and respond! Very well-said. I think the reason it is such a cultural touchstone is because of how unique it was to have those “events” of a book release.

      Liked by 1 person

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