Aha! Caught You Reading: Jacques Barzun and the Goblet of Fire, and Other Unsurprising Surprise Best Sellers

By Quindlen, Anna | Newsweek, July 17, 2000 | Go to article overview

Aha! Caught You Reading: Jacques Barzun and the Goblet of Fire, and Other Unsurprising Surprise Best Sellers


Quindlen, Anna, Newsweek


The next time someone talks about the narrow interests of kids today, how they attend only to the raucous cry of the computer calling across a stretch of cable to its mate, the Internet, remember this week. Remember how the boys and girls of America went gaga over a book, a real old-fashioned black-letters-on-white-paper book; how they waited in line for it at the malls, cradled it to their bony little chests, carried it into their bedrooms and slipped into its imaginary world with big eyes and open minds, as children have done almost since Gutenberg put the pedal to the metal of the printing press.

There's nothing so wonderful in America that someone can't create a kind of Calvary out of it, and so it is with the publication of the fourth Harry Potter book. It is called "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," but it could just as well have been called "Harry Potter and the Lingerie Sale at Saks" for all the difference a title would have made in its reception. Bookstores stayed open after midnight to accommodate the publisher's embargo; children dressed up like Harry and the rest of the gang at the Hogwarts School. And this was characterized as the triumph of hype, and the legerdemain of marketing. But hype and marketing go only so far when a 12-year-old settles down on the sofa for the long haul with a book longer than "Crime and Punishment." What remains is wonderfully retro: the beauty of reading for pleasure, and its enduring role in the life of the mind.

Yes, yes, of course you've heard that reading has gone out of fashion. It makes you wonder how the other three Harry Potter books have managed to sell more copies than there are people living in Greece and Hungary combined. It makes you wonder why Barnes & Noble stores spring up everywhere like mushrooms after a rainy spell. And how can it be that "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," a coming-of-age story set at the beginning of the 20th century and published in 1943, refuses to go out of print, that "Our Town" sold 70,000 paperback copies last year? That's a whole lot of school plays.

The answer is that reports of the death of the book have been greatly exaggerated. It is indeed true that a recent study of a representative sample of Americans found that the number of people who read for more than 30 minutes a day had dropped from 51 to 45 percent. But a Gallup poll of Americans' favorite leisure activities also showed that more than one in four still put reading at or near the top of the list.

Some librarians over the age of 70 might insist that that can't compare to a half century ago, and although those are the wise human beings who introduced us to the Betsy-Tacy books and "A Girl of the Limberlost," they would be wrong. In 1952, to the question "Do you happen to be reading any books or novels at the present time?" only 18 percent of Americans surveyed by Gallup said yes. In 1963 fewer than half the Americans polled said they had read a book all the way through in the previous year; in 1999 that number was 84 percent.

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Aha! Caught You Reading: Jacques Barzun and the Goblet of Fire, and Other Unsurprising Surprise Best Sellers
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