The Power of Potter
Can the teenage wizard turn a generation of halfhearted readers into lifelong bookworms?
Ben Buchanan made absolutely sure his schedule would be clear this week. Like millions of Americans, the Texas teen is devouring the 672 pages of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince , the sixth book in the uberpopular series by J. K. Rowling. And that's quite a feat in Buchanan's case. When he got the first Harry Potter book as a Christmas present back in 1998, he was struggling with dyslexia. "I just thought it would be another book I wouldn't like," says Buchanan, who was ready to toss it out with the wrapping paper. Then his mom read the first chapter aloud to him, and he was determined to conquer his first "real" book.
As the world eagerly cracks open the newest volume, whose initial U.S. run of 10.8 million copies is a publishing record, the true mystery isn't the identity of the royal figure in the title. It's what impact these books are having on kids. Are they converting nonreaders like Buchanan? Are they capable of helping other books defeat TV and video games in the battle for children's free time? More than 100 million of Rowling's books are in print in the United States alone, and everyone has heard anecdotes about kids fervently reading and rereading each title. But whether all of this hype of countdowns and midnight trips to bookstores translates into a lifelong reading habit remains unclear.
If our society ever needed a reading renaissance, it's now. The National Endowment for the Arts released "Reading at Risk" last year, a study showing that adult reading rates have dropped 10 percentage points in the past decade, with the steepest slump among those 18 to 24. "Only one half of young people [in that age bracket] read a book of any kind--including Harry Potter --in 2002. We set the bar almost on the ground. If you read one short story in a teen magazine, that would have counted," laments Mark Bauerlein, the NEA's director of research and analysis. He attributes the loss of readers to the booming world of technology, which woos would-be leisure readers to iPods, E-mail, IM chats, and video games and leaves them with no time to curl up with a novel.
These new forms of media undoubtedly have some benefits, says Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad Is Good for You . Video games improve problem-solving skills; TV shows promote mental gymnastics by forcing viewers to follow intertwining story lines. But books offer experience that can't be gained from these other sources, from building vocabulary to stretching the imagination. "If they're not reading at all," says Johnson, "that's a huge problem."
In fact, fewer kids are reading for pleasure. According to data released last week from the National Center for Educational Statistics's long-term trend assessment, the number of 17-year-olds who reported never or hardly ever reading for fun rose from 9 percent in 1984 to 19 percent in 2004. At the same time, the percentage of 17-year-olds who read daily dropped from 31 to 22.