Secret Gardens: The Persistence of the Printed Word

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By Jay Hochstedt of Changing Hands Bookstore

A prominent London columnist took a swipe recently at the jubilation following the release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the sixth book in the beloved series by J.K. Rowling. "Until Friday," he sniffed, "the Harry Potter series had sold about 270 million copies worldwide. Which is considerably less than the one billion shifted by the late, rather unfashionable, Barbara Cartland." The author's peevishness reminded me of similarly dismissive remarks about the Beatles (and rock music generally) that were journalistic stock-in-trade throughout the 1960s.

Resurrecting Dame Barbara, whose sales figures have been quietly accumulating for some eighty years, to jeer at Rowling's eight-year total of 270 million in sales, in addition to being irrelevant, misses entirely the reasons why booksellers, librarians, and teachers are mostly delighted with Harry, whose phenomenal success delivers us the good news that electronic media saturation, far from heralding the demise of reading, is an asset in making new readers.

Ever since the Lumiere brothers began projecting images on screens in darkened auditoriums throughout Europe, cultural critics have been predicting the demise of reading. Films, they said -- particularly after the debut of talkies in the 1920s -- would kill the printed word. Then radio, then television, then video games, and now the Internet. But instead of drowning book culture, recent turns in technology have in fact helped widen the base of readers. Gaining instantaneous access to readers all over the world has saved innumerable used book dealers. Book buyers, unsure of a title, often recognize jacket art flickering onscreen behind a customer service counter at their local bookstore. Many out-of-print books, or books that would otherwise have gone out of print, can now be printed cheaply in short runs from text stored in a database. It turns out that the portable, private form of the book, resting in the hands and cradled in the lap, continues to provide the ideal fulfillment of an essential human need.

The hunger for stories is basic to being human, and so is recording and keeping the tales we tell. Books add a dimension to storytelling that no other medium can: the reader feels an expansion of time. The printed page is a sort of spell, which allows each reader to evoke a singularly unique image without assistance from any other instrument. No keyboard, no software is involved. While we seem to be going out of ourselves, entering the world of the writer's mind and feelings, as readers we go more deeply into our own world. A child with a book has a different expression, more internal, more involved, than does a child seated in front of a computer screen.

For many people of my generation, J.R.R. Tolkien and Middle Earth provided the initiation into the inner world of books that Rowling and Hogwarts do today. The culture of the time was more dismissive of mythical storytelling, but Peter Jackson's recent film version of Tolkien's saga triumphed at the symbolic center of media culture 30 years after the author's death. Just as we tramped through the woods, mountains, and wastes of Middle Earth, today's young reader enters a dimension that exists behind and between the outwardly mundane streets and houses of the everyday world. Middle Earth was suffused with nostalgia for vanishing lands, and evinced concern for the disappearance of myth and wonder. Today's reader stepping onto the platform to catch a train for Hogwarts learns to look for wonders that are hidden in plain view.

In childhood, our minds are preternaturally receptive -- vastly more receptive, it turns out, than we ever guessed. We retain most vividly our earliest impressions, and if we're given destructive images, which teach us to fear the unknown and to obey without seeking understanding, then the person who finally emerges is likely to be unable to live outside a certain closed environment, one that presents few enticements or challenges to imaginative, emotional, or intellectual growth.

There have been dour periods in Europe and America when children were denied joke books, because humor was thought an impediment to developing serious adult character. But we need, both as children and adult readers, strong doses of laughter and terror. If J.K. Rowling has re-ignited children's love of reading, she's done so by countering the institutional myopia that has force-fed generations of students certain "classics" without consideration of whether modern readers could appreciate them. Sadly, there are still those made on the model of Dickens' Mr. Gradgrind, to whom the idea that reading is best when it's fun is as alien as the idea that the best tasting food is the healthiest.

Every book that strikes us, which wakes us up, that refreshes us, teaches us how to read all over again. Libraries are littered with the works of once-bestselling authors that speak the idiom of their time and are forgotten in a fortnight. It's unsurprising that so many of the enduring books in our literature are those seen through the eyes of a child leaving home, an adolescent, or a traveler; these are the books that hand us the key, not to the wide world beyond, but to the secret garden that waits within each of us.

Reprinted with permission of the author and Bookstories, the newsletter of Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, Arizona.

Jay Hochstedt tells BTW that he "was born not far from Poe's grave just prior to the building of the Berlin Wall and has worked in bookstores and libraries since 1988. A Russo/Francophile and occasional New Yorker, he foresees a distinct possibility of finishing life like Sol Roth, the outmoded researcher played by Edward G. Robinson in his final film Soylent Green."