News about the publishing industry this month has been dominated by the global infatuation with the Harry Potter book series. The release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — the seventh and final installment in the saga by British author J.K. Rowling — generated record sales and massive media hype.
Since the Potter books began being snatched up with such alacrity by readers young and old, Rowling has been given credit for helping to reintroduce a new generation to the pleasures of reading. Yet inevitably, her success has also led some to claim that the tales of wizardry will not do much in the long term to encourage youngsters to keep reading even after they are no longer infatuated by the tales of hogwarts, muggles and quidditch.
There is good reason for pessimism as we contemplate generations being raised on — and even addicted to — the sophisticated computer and video technologies that make the simple act of sitting down and opening a book seem obsolete. There is no way of knowing today whether Potter fans will grow up to appreciate other literary genres, but the phenomenon does illustrate the fact that merely telling kids to read isn't the same thing as placing in their hands literature that fires their imaginations. It's hard to believe that once they have acquired a taste for books, they will lose it.
The question of how to attract new adherents to the written word is not an idle one. Without an informed public who knows how to read critically, democracy cannot survive. Indeed, Jews have always been known as "The People of the Book" not just because of the Bible, but because the study of sacred texts is integral to our observance and our culture. Immersed as most Jews are in secular society, if our youngsters never learn to love reading, Judaism will be as hard a sell to them as an obsolete ipod.
We don't doubt that some religious traditionalists will look with horror on Jewish youth immersing themselves in Rowling's non-Jewish fictional universe. But while we would urge Jewish youngsters to gobble up more than just the latest Potter book, neither should we discourage them from enjoying this best-seller.
The challenge here is to get our children to stop staring at television sets filled with far more destructive images to our values than Harry Potter could ever be. As long as our children are reading, there will always be a way to entice them to sample the treasures of their own heritage, as well as the glories of Western civilization. And for that opportunity, J.K. Rowling — and Harry, for that matter — deserve our gratitude.