Harry Potter and the tyranny of the urgent

Posted: Jun 26, 2003 12:00 AM

These last two weeks have featured buckets of buzz about books: first Hillary Clinton's memoir, then Harry Potter. But so what?

Mrs. Clinton is not my favorite politician nor Master Potter my favorite literary character, but neither is the devil and neither is as big a deal as they might seem from reading newspapers or their 24-7 video and print brethren, cable news networks and most Internet blogs.

The new Potter book, Order of the Phoenix, is long -- 870 pages -- and full of new gadgets, creatures and wizard jokes, which author J.K. Rowling throws in whenever the narrative flags. Harry storms through most of the book, adolescent anger smoldering just below the surface, erupting often in angry outbursts directed at teachers and friends alike.

The book reads less like an epic tale of good versus evil than a boarding school story pitting a petty and vindictive teacher against a particularly promising student. Rowling provides enough gross-out humor and action to amuse young fans, but adults who have been touting the series as verbal wizardry should be ashamed

The best comment on Harry Potter that I've seen comes from an unusual blogger, Jeff Jarvis, who wrote: "It is accepted media wisdom that these long books are a good thing because they're getting kids to read them. Pardon me, but that's like saying that Mary Higgins Clark is good because it's getting middle-aged bon-bon eaters to read. They're not dissimilar."

Jarvis continued: "As narrative drama goes, Harry Potter sometimes displays the storytelling skill of a 6-year-old recounting a movie: This happened, then that happened, then this, then that. Resolution comes ... with a magic spell or medieval gizmo rather than through the dramatic conflict and examination of conscience of the characters. ... 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' is better dramatic fiction."

Yet The Washington Post breathlessly listed the Potter series as a memorable work alongside the Bible and the Iliad, stating, "Harry Potter has changed the world." Not so. The Post's world is too small. The National Education Association annual convention next week will probably include gushing tributes to the power of Harry Potter in getting kids to read. But I've seen children captivated by much finer books, like Gulliver's Travels, Robinson Crusoe, and The Lord of the Rings. Much depends on marketing, along with the enthusiasm of teachers and parents.

There's a larger issue here, one highlighted by all the hype about each new new thing. The new news technology is freeing but also enslaving, sometimes looking like a beckoning universe and sometimes like a jail cell. We are promised liberation through instant knowledge. We end up with the tyranny of the urgent. "We are slaves to the Next, ruled by videocracy," The Washington Post fretted even as it promoted the Potter craze.

Walter Lippmann, America's most influential pundit from the 1930s through the early 1960s, titled his newspaper column Today and Tomorrow, indicating that he was covering events but also providing perspective. David Brinkley's distinctive, sardonic television tone similarly conveyed a sense that today's news was not as earth-shaking as it might seem. Many of today's cable reporters and bloggers, though, alternate between jumping on every bandwagon and, Chicken Little-like, reporting imaginary falling objects.

Columnists should offer perspective, pointing out events and trends that are significant because this world is real, not just a matrix, and because what happens in it displays the nature of man and the nature of God.

All of us at times descend into the tyranny of the urgent, but we should fight that. Let cable TV, blogs and newspapers give us our hourly and daily bread; other journalists can focus attention on what each day reveals about things that last. We are not slaves to the Next. We can be free if we want to be.