It’s OK to Start Out Reading ‘Harry Potter’ — But Not Because It’s a Gateway Book

In a recent essay at the New York Review of Books, Tim Parks argues against the prevailing notion that it is A-OK for people, particularly young people, to read lowbrow/genre novels because “so long as they are reading something there’s at least a chance that one day they’ll move on to something better.” He essentially argues that that never happens, and moreover that, “If anything, genre fiction prevents engagement with literary fiction, rather than vice versa, partly because of the time it occupies, but more subtly because while the latter is of its nature exploratory and potentially unsettling the former encourages the reader to stay in a comfort zone.”

Ignoring the whole unqualified genre = trash suggestion (this kind of thinking has been dissected elsewhere, so I’m just going to mostly read “genre” as “lowbrow”), let’s start with this: I agree. In my heart of hearts, I don’t want anyone reading Twilight either. I think people should, in general, not read bad books.

But the truth is, no lifelong reader of highbrow literary fiction starts out with Nabokov. Because when you start out, you’re seven. Then, for a while, you’re eight. As an adult, I am a fairly serious reader. As a child, I read mostly fantasy novels, mostly with “chronicle” in the title (The Chronicles of Prydain! The Enchanted Forest Chronicles! The Chronicles of Narnia! The word still warms the cockles of my reading-heart). As an adult, I am a fairly serious reader of literary fiction. I also like poetry. I also like narrative nonfiction and fabulism and Ursula K. Le Guin. I find time for all of this, by the way. Would I be the reader I am had I not fallen in love with books that were at my emotional and intellectual level as a child, and then as an adolescent, and then as a teenager? I’m going to venture probably not.

The real issue here is sort of crystallized in Parks’ last paragraph. He writes:

What no one wants to accept—and no doubt there is an element of class prejudice at work here too—is that there are many ways to live a full, responsible, and even wise life that do not pass through reading literary fiction. And that consequently those of us who do pursue this habit, who feel that it enriches and illuminates us, are not in possession of an essential tool for self-realization or the key to protecting civilization from decadence and collapse. We are just a bunch of folks who for reasons of history and social conditioning have been blessed with a wonderful pursuit.

Well, of course that’s true, and I admit that, as someone who has been described as a snob and who also genuinely believes in the importance of literature, when I read that paragraph I felt duly chastened. But it also points to the essential problem with Parks’s argument, which is that it exists as an argument at all, despite the fact that literary fiction is not the only way to live that full and wise life. That is, no one would ever be making this argument about our culture’s other forms of entertainment — television, film, music — even though all of these have the same capacity to be highbrow or lowbrow, smart or stupid, boring but good for your brain or enjoyable, predicable mush, or to hover on some point on a spectrum between these.

We don’t have to argue about the fact that trash is a gateway to better tastes in these media, we just accept that most people discover Ace Ventura before Godard and Top 40 (or in my case, Tom Chapin, which just says a lot about my upbringing) before Lou Reed and Wagner. And we don’t have to dissect what it means to continue consuming both — there’s much less of a stigma attached to watching The Wire and The Real World/Road Rules Challenge: Inferno II in the same sitting than there is to reading both Silas Marner and The Da Vinci Code. Literary fiction used to be the province of the people, and somehow, over the years, it has become deeply alienating to many would-be readers.

True, there are music snobs, but the world of literature is uniquely snobby, and the art of literature is elevated to a kind of pedestal that no other entertainment-based art form is expected to reach (I’d put performance art and painting in another category) — hence the alienating quality. But it does early readers a disservice to suggest that once a Twilight reader, always and only a Twilight reader. Such snobbery can turn off or intimidate readers, and despite the fact that, as Parks says, literature is not the key to life, it is a pretty good and important thing. So beginning readers of all sorts should be encouraged.

Of course it’s not worthwhile, in an absolute sense, to read Fifty Shades of Gray. It will not challenge you intellectually. It will not force you to see the world in a new light. You will not be delighted by the prose, although you may have other reactions. But some books exist only to be entertaining, the way some exist only to be edifying, and there’s no reason there can’t be room for that in any reading life that wants or has room for it. You can eat a Twinkie and still enjoy that gourmet meal.

Basically, it comes down to this: snobbery is fun. But why look down on readers of Harry Potter? You never know what book will be the first step toward Shakespeare. And as Parks himself points out, it doesn’t really matter if you get there anyway.