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Via a post by Althouse, I was alerted to this recent Richard Dawkins quote about children reading Harry Potter and other fantasy fiction:

I think it is is anti-scientific – whether that has a pernicious effect, I don’t know…

I think looking back to my own childhood, the fact that so many of the stories I read allowed the possibility of frogs turning into princes, whether that has a sort of insidious [e]ffect on rationality, I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s something for research.

In fact, Dawkins goes further than simply advocating that children should not read Harry Potter. He thinks identifying children by their religion or even teaching them your religious views, is child abuse:

Do not ever call a child a Muslim child or a Christian child – that is a form of child abuse because a young child is too young to know what its views are about the cosmos or morality […]

It’s a form of child abuse, even worse than physical child abuse. I wouldn’t want to teach a young child, a terrifyingly young child, about hell when he dies, as it’s as bad as many forms of physical abuse.

It is worth noting that Dawkins also once advocated that legal action be taken against astrologers under trade laws.

Now, I am an atheist. However, on the Harry Potter issue, I am more inclined to agree with the Althouse commenter who writes:

Does he have kids? Does he remember being a kid? Does he approve of the way our culture infantilizes children through and beyond the age of 18?

To which I could add some more — does he understand freedom? Imagination? The simple fact that indulgence in fantasy is a necessary component of growing up?

Also, I am disturbed by his tendency to impose rationalism via coercion. For a very personal take on coercion vs science, read this old entry of mine.

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One of the greatest formative experiences of my life preceded Harry Potter, though it informed much of what I subsequently wrote in those books. This revelation came in the form of one of my earliest day jobs. Though I was sloping off to write stories during my lunch hours, I paid the rent in my early 20s by working in the research department at Amnesty International’s headquarters in London.

There in my little office I read hastily scribbled letters smuggled out of totalitarian regimes by men and women who were risking imprisonment to inform the outside world of what was happening to them. I saw photographs of those who had disappeared without trace, sent to Amnesty by their desperate families and friends. I read the testimony of torture victims and saw pictures of their injuries. I opened handwritten, eye-witness accounts of summary trials and executions, of kidnappings and rapes.

Many of my co-workers were ex-political prisoners, people who had been displaced from their homes, or fled into exile, because they had the temerity to think independently of their government. Visitors to our office included those who had come to give information, or to try and find out what had happened to those they had been forced to leave behind.

I shall never forget the African torture victim, a young man no older than I was at the time, who had become mentally ill after all he had endured in his homeland. He trembled uncontrollably as he spoke into a video camera about the brutality inflicted upon him. He was a foot taller than I was, and seemed as fragile as a child. I was given the job of escorting him to the Underground Station afterwards, and this man whose life had been shattered by cruelty took my hand with exquisite courtesy, and wished me future happiness.

And as long as I live I shall remember walking along an empty corridor and suddenly hearing, from behind a closed door, a scream of pain and horror such as I have never heard since. The door opened, and the researcher poked out her head and told me to run and make a hot drink for the young man sitting with her. She had just given him the news that in retaliation for his own outspokenness against his country’s regime, his mother had been seized and executed.

Every day of my working week in my early 20s I was reminded how incredibly fortunate I was, to live in a country with a democratically elected government, where legal representation and a public trial were the rights of everyone.

Link.

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Has the world ever seen a phenomenon like Harry Potter? There are a million theories -spanning the whole gamut from writing skills to ingenious marketing- about what makes the series so mindbogglingly popular. Personally, I stand for the simplistic view that they are just outstanding books. Massive popularity quite often signals mediocrity- not in the case of HP. But then again, I am hopelessly biased. Like Fitzgerald, Polanski and Hardy, Harry Potter is mine in a unique way. Yet, somewhere over the four years since I read my first Potter, I have lost something. Call it growing up, if you wish. But I am getting ahead of my story; let me start at the beginning.

It all started in the spring of 2001. There were a couple of months left for the IIT entrance examination, and yeah, of course I had heard of Harry Potter. I knew it was a ridiculously popular children’s book, and I considered myself a fairly sophisticated reader and didn’t think it worth my while to read it. It was due to one of my friends’ repeated and extravagant praise that I finally deigned to try one out. It was book III- The prisoner of Azkaban.

It was brilliant, better than anything I had expected. As soon as I finished it, I made frantic phone calls to my friends to get my hand on the remaining Potters. Within a week I had read book I and book IV. Book II proved more difficult to find, but I finally discovered that M had it, and she lent me her copy to read during during the olympiad training camp.

Oh, the heady days of first love! I read the books again and again, and I remember telling my mom, and meaning it, that at that moment everything came second to the pleasure of being a part of J K Rowling’s magical world. If a new Harry Potter book were to come out out that day, I would have dropped anything, aye, even the most important exam in the world, and read it first.

It was not just the fact that they were such wonderful reads. It was something more than that- J K Rowling’s books had moments that lifted them to the very greatest works of art ever created. Like in book III, when Harry, Ron and Hermione travel back in time, and in an astonishing climax, Harry realizes that it was not his father by the lake, but himself, and that gives him the confidence to produce a real Patronus. And who else but Rowling could have thought of a creature like the dementor(possibly her greatest invention) that sucks the happiness out of people? Or written a passage as powerful and moving as the final clash of book IV, when Harry fights Voldemort, and the latter’s victims come out of his wand, and they are dead, but they urge Harry to fight on… Indeed, what made Harry Potter unique was the combination of brilliant ideas, magical adventures, and the intermingling of universal themes like love, friendship and death (or the core of ‘morality’ if you prefer, but I have always disliked that word).

Yes, I had, in a way, discovered Harry Potter, made him my own. Of course that is a ridiculous statement, in view of the sheer number of HP readers, yet I felt that I had seen things no one else had. To me, J K Rowling was a genius, and I was her greatest fan.

The wait between Book IV and Book V seemed interminable. And when it came out I read it almost non-stop! Oh the pleasure of being back back with Harry and his friends! To read of Dumbledore again, the greatest wizard that ever lived! Yet, in some ways, Book V was a bit of a letdown. It was too long, nothing really happened. The final confrontation did not have the charm of the confrontation of book IV. Still, it was Harry Potter.

And then came book VI. It released yesterday, and I finished reading it today morning. It is excellent, even darker than its two predecessors and almost as good as books III and IV. It is also the most epic of all the Harry Potters yet, and certainly the most devastating. I shall not say anything more of the plot, for I don’t wish to give out spoilers.

Yet, something had changed.

Harry Potter V and VI did not make me feel the way I felt, four summers back, when I read the first four books. Yes, they were excellent reads indeed, but somewhere, something got lost. Now, they are just ‘books’ for me. Harry’s world is just a well constructed literary invention. I am still a great fan, and when HP VII releases I will get hold of a copy as soon as I can even if I have to fight a thousand centaurs- but the fervent, almost religious love is no more.

Is it the books that have changed, or is it me? Certainly the books have been getting progressively darker, indeed book VI feels almost unrecognisable when compared to book I. But I have always loved darkness…and book IV was dark too, and I adored it, especially its final passages. Perhaps David Kipen of the San Francisco Chronicle hits closer to the mark :”It’s not that ‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’ is dull, exactly. … No, the main problem is that J.K. Rowling has now written six of these bricks. Even if they were getting better, they’re certainly not getting any fresher.” And also, it is true that none of the new inventions of Books V and VI have appealed to me as much as some of the ones- like dementors, time turners, unforgivable curses, Ron playing wizard chess- from the first four books.

Or maybe it is is just me, who has grown up. My tastes have certainly changed. Many books and movies I absolutely adored, even five years back, I don’t care for so much now. Or perhaps- and it is a scary thought- I have grown up too much to have such a fervent love for anything. Or maybe it has nothing to do with the books or me changing, it is just that any such love comes with an expiry date, like most relationships do.

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