Harry Potter and the Idiot’s Diversion

30 08 2007

Morris Berman writes:

For every intelligent book you, the reader, might read, millions of other readers occupy themselves with titles such as Aliens are Among Us!  or Protect Yourself from Emotional Abuse, and that is, if they read at all. . . Don DeLillo echoes this sentiment when he writes, “If serious reading dwindles to nothingness, it will probably mean that the thing we’re talking about when we use the word ‘identity’ has reached an end.”

In Morris Berman’s book The Twilight of American Culture, he discusses, among other things, the collapse of American intelligence.  It’s a remarkably interesting and depressing read.  I highly recommend it.




4 responses

31 08 2007
Morris Berman

Dear Mitchell,

Yes, idiot’s diversion indeed. It amazes me that very literate, intelligent parents (there are still a few around) tell me that “at least it gets them reading” and “it’s better than television.” Yes, I say; but what is it that is passing into the brain as they are reading, and what if it’s just television in text form?

Also check out the few pp. in the Twilight book on the Hardy Boys series, and how the publishers dumbed it down to make it emotionally simplistic. I suppose the real question is whether young readers of things like Harry Potter then go on to Dostoyevsky later in life, or to People Magazine. There are no studies of how things such as H.P. function in terms of subsequent reading habits, i.e. whether reading such stuff actually launches the reader into things that are challenging and nuanced. I tend to doubt it, but I await scientific data.

All the best,

31 08 2007

Mr. Berman –
Thank you for commenting! I think that Miss Teen South Carolina is a great example of what happens when you grow up on a diet that consists solely of “non-literature.” I think the problem is not that these mindless diversions exist, but that we live in a culture that makes it acceptable to consume them (and only them). Through my experience as a substitute teacher in a metropolitan public school district, time and time again I’ve found that children not only aren’t interested in, but actively avoid any sort of intellectual stimulation. When the president of the United States can’t form one coherent sentence, why should we expect anything else from our children?
There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence in what I’ve read of your book, but I think that you hit upon a very important point, a point which as a society we’re ignoring – that is that we have so many infantilizing influences on our lives (corporate consumerism, religion, etc.) that we actually are turning into a nation of infants.
I look forward to finishing your book, and again, thank you for responding.


11 01 2008

The more I read of Mr. Berman and similar people, the more I believe the real point of their criticism isn’t to change things in any way, but simply to feel smug self-satisfaction at their own infinite intellectual superiority to the “masses”. In fact, Mr. Berman’s books actively discourages participation in society or an attempt to fix things, claiming that most people are simply too stupid or ignorant to understand what intellectual life is like.

In “The Twilight of American Culture”, Berman notes that most Americans “do not read more than one book a year”. Nonsense–as the “Harry Potter” phenomena proves (let alone the success of Barnes& Noble and amazon.com). So is Berman happy to see that Americans, and American children and young people especially, are in fact reading more than he believed? Not so fast; now, he claims, we need to be sure they “go on to Dostoyevsky”.

While literally speaking Berman is correct–one should not overemphasize the “Harry Potter” books’ influence on American literacy–one gets that feeling that Berman will keep moving the goalposts, in order to maintain his own feeling of superiority. If tomorrow all American kids read Dostoyevsky, Berman will claim they just read it, but didn’t understand its deep symbolism and structure, like he did. Again, that would probably be *literally* true, but obviously the real point of mentioning it is to keep up Berman’s own feeling of superiority from “the masses”.

11 07 2016
sara l.

The us-a failed corporation of delusions, deceptions, denials, and distractions-needs sheeple-ignorant masses too preoccupied with nonsense. the ‘country’ is nothing more than a dilapitated collection of hamsters spinning into oblivion–eager to please the boss man–they are nothing more than tax and debt slaves to a kleptocratic farce of “nation.”

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