Thursday, July 21, 2005

Will Harry stand the test of time?

The Harry Potter terrorism allusion meme propagates:

In 1998, when the first Harry Potter book came out, Voldemort was a fantastical villain, a symbol of evil in the abstract. Today, however, as we substitute for our abstract fear of Voldemort the very real fear we've felt in our own immolated cities, the new book resonates in ways that the old ones have not.

It is hard not to wonder, though, whether making the books more timely will make them less timeless. Critics have been atwitter about Harry Potter lately. Some believe the books belong alongside the classics of children's literature. Others scoff that Hogwarts is no Narnia—that the world Rowling has imagined is narrowly conceived and filled with too many cheap references to our own. Reading the Half-Blood Prince today, Rowling's references to terrorism don't feel cheap. They feel terrifying. But how will they read in 50 years?

It's probably true that the topicality of the books will date them. They do of course address timeless themes - coming of age, evil, prejudice. But the accumulation of winking cultural references - not to mention the whole Potter craze - makes them very much books of the present day, and such postmodern artifacts tend to be disposable.