I came across this fantastic article, “Majoring in Potterology,” and really wanted to share it with you. I love reading and I love pop culture. I’m always fascinated by the question: Why is something popular?
I love Jane Eyre and The Brothers Karamazov, yet I also read “childish” books like Harry Potter, and smut like Twilight and Fifty Shades. In choir I sang Handel’s Messiah, but I like to rock it to “Last Friday Night” by Katy Perry. I love classic films like Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Lord of the Rings, but every Tuesday morning without fail I am watching The Bachelorette on Hulu. (Our TV is broken—otherwise, I’d be watching it when it airs on Monday nights.)
Besides the fact that I’m just a weird hodgepodge of eclectic tastes, I think there is something to say for the popular movies, TV shows, songs, and books. They’ve got to be popular for a reason. Why?
This article reports that the first scholarly conference on the Harry Potter series was held at the University of St. Andrew’s in Scotland (also, coincidentally, where the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge attended uni). Many people questioned the purpose of this conference. Some asked: Why bother studying a children’s book?
Well, I could point out several children’s books that are studied in college literature classes throughout the world. But that’s beside the point. I like Harry Potter, but I’m not a diehard fan. However, one of the reasons I like it is because I grew up with Harry Potter. The books were published each year, and I was always the same age as Harry, Hermione, and Ron. That was special to me. That connected me with the books. Thousands of young adults have had the same experience. But for whatever reason people like the series, it became a cultural phenomenon. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these “low brow” books become classics in the future. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in a hundred years, English scholars say, “Why wouldn’t you read Harry Potter?!”
I rather hope books like Fifty Shades and Twilight, and TV shows like The Bachelorette don’t last and become classics, but they very well might. If anything, their popularity must say something about our collective tastes right now. Perhaps, culturally, we’re claiming a wild side that hitherto has been hidden and denied? Catching up with our European counterparts, who’ve always seen Americans as prudish? Perhaps, as a generation, we’re reacting against the high morals of our baby boomer parents and grandparents? Maybe, because of the economic crisis, we’re subconsciously indulging our basest desires in order to compensate? Who knows? Also interesting: Why am I still embarrassed to admit I enjoy some of these things? That could be more personal, or it could be cultural.
I like what Laura Miller says:
“Throughout the early 19th century, all novels were seen in more or less this light: as fanciful stories read by silly women seeking escape from sterner truths, women all too prone to absorbing dangerously misguided notions of life and love. (For the record, I tend to agree with the latter opinion, but that doesn’t mean I think Wuthering Heights beneath scholar interest.) As recently as the 1930s, it was controversial for any novel at all to be assigned to students at Oxford. Novels were regarded as recreational reading, not matter for significant study.”
Now, of course, novels are required reading for every English major. I probably wouldn’t have studied abroad at Oxford at all if novels weren’t allowed. We don’t know how things will continue to change in the future.
I don’t have any answers, but I do love this conversation and would love to hear your opinions. What do you think makes books popular? Are you embarrassed by any of your tastes? Why do you think that is?