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The Order of the Harry-Haters

By Helen Pringle - posted Friday, 27 July 2007

I hate Harry Potter. Let me explain.

In the Republic Plato proposes that poets should be banished from a well-governed state, because poetry can harm the souls of those who listen to it. Plato argues that the souls of children in particular can be seriously misshaped by some poetry, deforming their character and their path in life.

Plato’s argument rests on the assumption that poetry has power, just as do other forms of literature. Contrary to W.H. Auden’s lament, that is, poetry does make things happen. I’m with Plato on this: I think we should concede the power of literature. Children do learn from books how to value, honour and respect their own lives and the lives of others. And just as parents care about their children’s friends, it is reasonable to think and care about what books our children read.


I do not mean this in the sense of caring about what actions children take after reading books. Rather, I mean that it is reasonable to care about what happens to a child in the actual reading of the book.

In The Company We Keep, the literary critic Wayne Booth sets out some good questions to ask of any book: “What happens to us as we read? Who am I, during the hours of reading or listening? What is the quality of the life I lead in the company of these would-be friends?”

So, for example, what does happen to us as we read Harry Potter? Who am I in the hours of reading Harry Potter? What is the quality of life I lead in the company of the Harry Potter stories?

Already I can hear exasperated questions from my readers: oh for goodness sake, it’s just a children’s book, why read so much into it, why ask such questions of a book that is fundamentally just meant to keep its young readers entertained away from the playstation or the television for a few hours?

Even if my readers allow that the Harry Potter books are written in a dull and cliché-ridden style, there is always the fallback that at least the books have re-ignited children’s love of reading. Or to use the marketing slogan of the booksellers: anything that gets children reading is a good thing (especially if they buy the merchandise as well …).

I don’t agree. I think that children would be better off not reading anything rather than reading Harry Potter. Actually, I think that children would be best off being read to by their parents. The early-reading child, face buried in a Harry Potter book, has become a fetish.


For the most part these days, children are being taught to read before they have any kind of acquaintance with the great works even of children’s literature, and therefore before they have any understanding of what it is possible to be and to become in the act of reading.

In a recent article entitled “Dickens after dark”, Imre Salusinszky talked about reading David Copperfield to his two children, all 821 pages of the book over 18 months (and if you think that is too long for children, it is not much longer than the last Harry Potter, which many children raced through on the day the book was released). For Salusinszky as well as for his children, this slow reading of DC was a delightful experience, of hunkering down on the double bed and of watching a world of great beauty and poignancy come into being.

I had a similar experience with reading Great Expectations. Like Harry Potter, Pip is an orphan living with an unsympathetic relative, Mrs Joe. Like the Harry Potter books, Great Expectations is a quest, where the hero discovers that the object of his search is himself. And like Harry, Pip discovers that the person he finds at the end of his quest is not what he thought he was, not who he would have liked himself to be. But there the similarities end.

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About the Author

Helen Pringle is in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales. Her research has been widely recognised by awards from Princeton University, the Fulbright Foundation, the Australian Federation of University Women, and the Universities of Adelaide, Wollongong and NSW. Her main fields of expertise are human rights, ethics in public life, and political theory.

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