Harry Potter and the Tail Fins

The latest Harry Potter book is a long one, and I am less than half way through it, but I’ve read enough to form an opinion of its quality. The many personalities that populate this latest saga reveal themselves as individuals by what they do and say, and how they do it. The reader doesn’t have to depend on how the author describes them, they reveal themselves. The environment is detailed and internally consistent and plausible. The plot is complex but hangs together. The totality is a compelling and highly readable excursion into a fantasy world. Tolkien, move over!

The public response to this book should give the media barons pause. Hollywood was spending megabucks on promoting its latest appeal to adolescent bad taste, “The Hulk,” and it came out about the same time Harry’s latest saga appeared. The June 29 New York Times reports that attendance at the movie actually dropped on the first Saturday, presumably because the intended audience was all busy reading the book. Ha! So much for the popular misconception that the youth of America is totally mesmerized by computer games and media glitch.

Our kids are human too. Harry Potter shows that they retain at least a residual respect for substance as opposed to packaging. I am reminded of the era of the tailfins, back a half century ago, when Detroit decided that the only basis Americans had for buying automobiles was color and styling. Their product evolved toward more chrome and bigger tailfins, as opposed to making a more reliable product internally. They were like the Irish elk, which evolved antlers so big it eventually went extinct. The style-over-substance barons in Detroit got their comeuppance, however, when the Japanese stepped in with their Hondas and Toyotas, which were not only cheap, they were leagues ahead of the US products in the quality of their engineering and workmanship. I knew Americans who insisted on still buying American, but that was based on political prejudice; less biased Americans went for the better product. Detroit languished for a while, then pulled up its socks and started making better cars.

Maybe the success of the Harry Potter series is an isolated phenomenon. But I am an optimist, and hope that it reveals an atavistic preference for quality that can be suppressed by media billions, but never extinguished completely. Who knows, perhaps that respect for substance over packaging may eventually show itself in our political process. What a revolutionary development that would be!

CSC 6/30/03

Note: A more recent Harry Potter book just came out. It maintains the same high quality and once again is a runaway best seller. I see no need to modify the above essay other than adding this note. (8/1/05)

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