Harry Potter and the literature battle

Previously published in The Daily Star.

While talking to some guys around my age (the 20-25-year-old range) about books one of the more well-read members of the conversation said something I found peculiar.

“How awesome is it that our grandkids will read ‘Harry Potter’ and remember it as the greatest books of our time.” I paused for a moment, waiting to see if it was a joke until I realized my friend was serious. Without pausing to contemplate the crapstorm that would ensue, I spoke without thinking:

“There’s no way ‘Harry Potter’ (HP from now on) will be remembered as the great literature of our time,” I said. Suddenly, the conversation screeched to a halt as my fellow millennial gave me a wounded look. It looked like I had killed his puppy or told a 3-year-old the truth about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and the Great Pumpkin. The others looked less hurt but still displeased with me.

He gave several impassioned pleas for me to reconsider my “hatred” of the world of witchcraft and wizardry, but there appeared to be a disconnect in our conversation. I was not saying that HP will not be remembered or that the books are bad (I enjoy the HP story and have no hatred in my heart for the series); I was explaining that they will not be remembered as the great literature of the turn of the 21st Century.

That distinction of literature instead of books is important. There are plenty of books I enjoy that I wouldn’t call great literature but admit they are an entertaining read, like John Grisham, Tom Clancy and Michael Lewis books (all of these authors are fun to read, but they are not the Franz Kafka or William Faulkner of our time let alone classic literature).

Instead, I believe that HP will be remembered for the way it affects pop culture more than it does literature. This is the point that made my friend the most upset because “the books are great, man.” Which I believe, but think about all the stuff that surrounds the HP-universe. These books are now part of a franchise on par with Star Wars and Marvel. It has a theme park, eight movies, a play that serves as an epilogue to the series and now has five movies coming out set 50-100 years before the main books (the “Fantastic Beasts” saga). One could also make the argument that HP is closer to a modern-day “Chronicles of Narnia” as well.

That sprawling universe leads directly into the next point about this issue, which is that it is, typically, the academics and intellectuals that determine what the great literary works of different eras were.

The fact that HP is so popular will probably be a knock on it from those hairless people (being heavily bearded and having long hair seems to be a trendy hip, intellectual aesthetic, so in a 100 years the pendulum will probably swing all the way in the direction of zero hair– no beard, no head, arm, leg or chest hair and no eyebrows to show how they are entirely above looks by carefully grooming themselves every day to look bad) in their ivory towers looking for something more avant-garde in the literary realm.

This leads me to believe the Great American Novel around the turn of the 21st Century will be “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace (DFW). This book makes sense for several reasons: DFW committed suicide before completing his next novel which tends to make intellectuals and academics appreciate the work even more. “Infinite Jest” also happens to be 1100 pages long and is one of the densest texts written in modern English. It is a funny and smart story that lays out the dangers of media and entertainment’s ability to render people motionless on a couch or in bed for hours and was written before the internet became a big deal (the early to mid 90’s).

So a lot of people will hail it for its genius without ever reading it akin to something like “Moby Dick” because few people are willing to read it due to its dense nature and extreme length, so people will accept that its the great literature of this period. It could also be other writers’ works like Jonathan Franzen, Don DeLillo and others.

I realize that picking DFW and “Infinite Jest” over HP is an intellectually smug thing to do and equivalent to betting on Ted Ginn Jr. to beat an eight-year-old in a footrace. DFW himself may seem like one of these smug intellectuals as well, but the guy grew up in the Midwest, was transparent about the issues in his life (addictions to different substances) and his fiction was about real stuff that spoke to what it feels like to be alive. His short story, “The Depressed Person,” is one of the truest and most earnest bits of writing about what depression feels like.

Of course, I could be (and probably am) wrong about what book will be selected. It is entirely possible that the great literature of our time has been or will be written by someone we aren’t aware of yet, in a similar vein of Kafka or Melville who died in relative obscurity before being discovered after death.

Again, I do not hate the HP series. Please do not email or call me to defend them. I will not listen. I will not care. Instead, take pity on me, for I am an emotionless robot devoid of love in my heart and incapable of caring for books about young wizards.

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