Three ways museums are making classic literature more attractive to young readers


Engaging young people is a challenge for museums.
Pixel-Shot/Shutterstock

Heather Green, Nottingham Trent University

For many lovers of classic literature, opportunities to devour the works of undiscovered authors can be enough to make people’s eyes light up. For those who aren’t as keen on the genre, the appeal of these titles is a little less obvious. In fact, it’s one of the reasons museum professionals are running into issues when it comes to inspiring new generations to read such works.

Engaging young people is a challenge for museums and the traditional approaches that literary heritage museums take when dealing with classic authors is becoming a problem. This is because literary heritage museums usually focus on presenting the biographical story, personal effects or archival collection of an author. Relevant and interesting perhaps to those already familiar with an author’s works, but perhaps less successful at engaging would-be readers. The language of some of these authors can also be a barrier to new readers, as can the difficulty of reading “a classic” – which might be seen as irrelevant or out of touch with the modern world.

As the community, learning and engagement officer at Wirksworth Heritage Centre in Derbyshire, my role is to engage audiences of all ages with the local history of Wirksworth. A key element to Wirksworth’s heritage is its literary connections to writers (including George Eliot, DH Lawrence and Daniel Defoe) and the inspiration they took from the people and the landscape of Wirksworth. My PhD research considers how literary heritage is presented in museums throughout the country. I have a particular interest in Nottingham, which was awarded the Unesco City of Literature bid in 2015 due to its rich literary heritage, but also has some of the lowest literacy levels in the country.

Since COVID-19, finding new ways to share our literary heritage both inside and outside of museum walls has become incredibly important. So how should museums show that these authors remain relevant in the 21st century? Literary heritage museums are doing this in a whole host of ways, but here are the three examples of approaches I believe are particularly successful.

1. Retelling stories

From the Austen Project to the many graphic novel retellings and classic novels reimagined as text messages, retelling stories with a contemporary twist is a well-trodden (if not always well-reviewed) path. It’s also a method of interpretation that literary heritage museums are beginning to embrace.

Using new and creative formats can remove some of the barriers to young people wanting to experience these stories and can inspire them to try the “real thing”. As part of my own curatorial work with Dorking Museum, I wrote a book entitled Forster in 50 which accompanies the exhibition Forster at 50. The book provides visitors with an overview of five of Forster’s novels in only 50 words with illustrations, providing more of an accessible introduction to EM Forster’s work.

2. Using technology to draw audiences in

Technology and literature may have seemed like a mismatch once upon a time, but more and more museums are using different technologies to engage audiences with their collections. Before its closure in 2016, the DH Lawrence Heritage Centre presented the 1915 censorship trial of Lawrence’s The Rainbow through a series of Twitter posts in their exhibition No Right to Exist: The Rainbow and Other Books Which Shocked. This condensed the complexities of the trial into a series of 140 character posts, allowing younger audiences to explore the debate in a familiar format and go on to consider what we consider scandalous in literature today.

My own work has included the co-production of Walking with Lawrence, a digital walking tour written from Lawrence’s perspective which allows the listener to connect the author with the city they see today. The use of a creative narrative which is listened to rather than read provides a format that’s easier to understand, removing some of the barriers created by large amounts of text.

3. Collaborating with creative partners

Working with creative partners such as artists and writers can help museums to reach new audiences, providing more approachable information for younger generations in particular. Graphic novels and comic books are incredibly helpful in this respect. I’m working with Wirksworth Heritage Centre’s writer in residence Helen Greetham, who’s currently producing a graphic novel about the literary heritage of George Eliot in Wirksworth.

A similar project is underway in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, working with young people to produce their own Lawrence-inspired graphic stories. The Eastwood Comics project aims to engage “700 further young people (who) will learn about the author and his birthplace by taking part in activities inspired by the young writers’ research”. Here, participation in creative projects and reading new stories help new generations to connect with Lawrence’s heritage in more meaningful ways than regurgitating information about the author.

The pandemic has provided an unprecedented challenge to the heritage sector, but the closure of our sites doesn’t mean we can’t continue to connect people to our history. These new and innovative ways that museums have engaged and inspired younger generations can continue regardless of whether physical buildings are open. In the months ahead, I hope more buildings take similar approaches.The Conversation

Heather Green, PhD Candidate, Literary Heritage, Nottingham Trent University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How reading aloud can be an act of seduction



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Kiera Vaclavik, Queen Mary University of London

Reading aloud is an activity that we associate with the cosy comfort of children’s bedtime stories. Certainly, children’s classics from The Gruffalo to the Alice books are produced knowing that when they come to be read, the chances are that an older person will be reading them aloud to a younger one.

The extensive benefits of reading aloud to children are well documented. Researchers have found that toddlers who are read to become children who are “more likely to enjoy strong relationships, sharper focus, and greater emotional resilience and self-mastery”.

Unsurprisingly, then, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends reading aloud to children. It’s even used by sociologists as one of the most important indicators of life prospects.

But if reading aloud is so good for us, why has it become primarily the preserve of childhood?

How silent reading took over

Of course it wasn’t always this way. As Meghan Cox Gurdon, the Wall Street Journal’s Children’s book critic, points out, since the advent of the written word until the 10th century, “to read at all was to read aloud”.

Even after silent reading became more common, it co-existed with what English Literature professor Abigail Williams refers to as “communal” and “social” forms of reading well into the 19th century. Only when the voices of mass media entered the home through radio and TV sets did reading as a shared public activity between consenting adults specifically start to wane.

Woman reading out loud to three children in a classroom
Children aren’t the only ones who benefit from being read to.
Robert Kneschke/Shutterstock

But as books themselves reveal, reading aloud could be more than merely sociable. It can be deeply seductive, forging intimate as well as communal bonds.

Azar Nafisi’s memoir about life as a woman and as a literature teacher in post-revolutionary Iran, Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003), features students Manna and Nima, who “had fallen in love in large part because of their common interest in literature”. If a love of literature draws this couple together, it’s reading it aloud that cements their relationship. The words they read aloud conjure a safe space from the difficulties of their word.

Likewise, in Mansfield Park (1814), Jane Austen uses reading aloud as a highly charged turning point in the relationship between protagonist Fanny Price and her recently declared suitor, Henry Crawford. When Henry reads aloud to the gathered assembly, his skill and sensitivity is such that Fanny is forced to sit up and listen despite herself.

Her needlework, upon which she determinedly focuses all her attention at first, eventually drops into her lap “and at last … the eyes which had appeared so studiously to avoid him throughout the day were turned and fixed on Crawford, fixed on him for minutes, fixed on him in short till the attraction drew Crawford’s upon her, and the book was closed, and the charm was broken.”

This insistent repetition makes for fairly steamy stuff in the Regency drawing room.

Reading as seduction

Elsewhere, reading aloud goes beyond such (ultimately unsuccessful) wooing. Spoiler alert: Crawford scuppers his chance with Fanny and runs away with her (already married) cousin (gasp!).

In Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader (1997), reading aloud underpins the relationship between the narrator, Michael, and his much older lover, Hanna – played in the 2008 film adaptation by David Kross/Ralph Fiennes and Kate Winslet.

Whether to keep Michael on track, or out of pure self-interest, Hanna insists that Michael read to her before they make love. Only much later do Michael and the reader discover that Hanna has two secrets (spoiler alert): she is a former concentration camp guard and she is illiterate.

Here, reading aloud is not just the warm-up act but an integral part of an intimate “ritual of reading, showering, making love and lying beside each other”. Reading unites these two very different individuals both physically and emotionally. Much later, when Hanna is imprisoned for war crimes, Michael continues to read to her from a distance; the taped recordings he sends ultimately allowing her to learn to read herself.

The unhappy fates of some of these relationships show that reading aloud is not a one-way ticket to the happily ever after. But these scenes do reveal its deep sensuality. According to Gurdon, the Wall Street Journal’s Children’s book critic, “there is incredible power in this fugitive exchange”.

Gurdon also suggests that reading aloud “has an amazing capacity to draw us closer to one another” both figuratively and literally. Where solitary reading drives us into ourselves – producing the cliched image of the couple reading their own books in bed before rolling over and turning out the light – reading aloud is a shared experience.

Reading aloud takes longer, but that is part of the point. Slow reading is sensuous reading. As opposed to the audiobooks now so firmly a part of the cultural landscape, for adults as well as children, reading aloud is responsive, intuitive and embodied.

The reader is also an observer, who adapts gestures, facial expressions and intonation in response to cues. Listeners observe too of course, their attention centred on the person before or alongside them.

With conversation petering out after months of lockdown and no restaurants, museums and cinemas to go to for some time yet, it’s worth remembering that learning and romance are still to be found under the (book) covers … as long as we read the words aloud.The Conversation

Kiera Vaclavik, Professor of Children’s Literature & Childhood Culture, Queen Mary University of London

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Five tips to get reading again if you’ve struggled during the pandemic



We all read much more than we give ourselves credit for.
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Alexandra Paddock, University of Oxford and Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, University of Oxford

Like many people, you may have resolved this New Year to read more in 2021 and spend less time on your screens. And now you may be wondering how to find the time to do it, especially in lockdown conditions, with different time constraints and anxieties pressing on us.

One solution is to go with shorter bursts of reading. Our Summer 2020 pop-up project, Ten-Minute Book Club, was a selection of ten excerpts from free literary texts, drawn from a wide range of writing in English globally.

Based on our larger project, LitHits, each week the book club presented a 10-minute excerpt framed by an introduction from an expert in the field and suggestions for free further reading.

We found that the top two things people responded to were the core idea of brevity – one of the most common terms in tweets about the project was “short” – and the quality and diversity of the literature. Our analytics showed that readers dipped in and out of the project over the 10-week span rather than regularly following along. One possible reason for this is that finding regular time for reading literature is not easy, especially right now.

Perhaps surprisingly, then, this article contains no advice about time management or habit-building. Instead, our five tips for reading are about fragments: literature interrupted.

This is nothing new. It is sometimes easy to forget that the 19th-century novel developed by the likes of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell, which appear so dauntingly thick in book form, were first read in magazine instalments featuring a chapter or two at a time. Brevity was a significant part of their original appeal.

1. Don’t start from zero

Begin positively by noticing how much you are already reading in your life without even thinking about it. Even if you have not opened a book in over a year, remember that we are in an age of hyper-literacy and our days are saturated with words. You can harness this.

You probably flex your reading muscles all day long without giving yourself credit for it. Recognising that is a step towards choosing different content, if that’s what you want, or simply considering how you engage with the texts you already read (even if they’re often 280 characters or fewer).

Two people on their phones
Reading tweets and scrolling through the news or even emails counts as reading.
water mint/Shutterstock

2. Quality, not quantity

Prioritise the quality of the attention you are paying to words. Reading well is the practice of noticing carefully and with an informed perspective – it’s not so much what you read as how you do it.

Throw away your inner “reading activity tracker” and enjoy curious and provocative engagements with whatever you’re reading, without worrying about racking up the literary miles. This will also dispel that sense of guilt about not reading “enough” that can make reading seem like yet another chore, akin to “not getting enough exercise”.

In his introduction to Sudden Fiction International (1989), an anthology of very short stories or “flash fiction”, American novelist Charles Baxter made the point that the duration of our attention is not as important as its quality: “No-one ever said that sonnets or haikus were evidence of short attention spans.”

3. Lose track of time

As well as not keeping a count of books read, try to note how different the time spent reading feels. Many people assume that reading takes time, the very thing most of us lack. Yet there is another, more subtle temporal element to reading that has more to do with the cognitive experience of the text itself.

Centuries can flash by in seconds and moments can roll out over aeons. Jia Tolentino captures this brilliantly in her characterisation of reading the work of Margaret Atwood: “nothing was really happening, but I was riveted, and fearful, as if someone were showing me footage of a car crash one frame at a time”.

4. Be opportunistic

You can find pleasure in a few snatched moments of reading, and these are just as worthwhile for the immersive experience they bring through the encounter with language, images, and ideas. There is no ideal environment or place to read – just do it wherever you can and whenever you have some spare moments.

5. Connect and take control

Choose what you read and find ways to try texts out for yourself to help your search, rather than relying on recommendation sites. Such sites are usually not as objective as they claim. For instance Goodreads, the social site where people can compile books they’ve read or would like to read, as well as find recommendations, is owned by book-selling behemoth Amazon.

Recognise, too, the difference between buying a book and reading more. In her 2019 book, What We Talk about When We Talk about Books, Leah Price emphasises that every reader finds the text through their own journey, in the conversations, forums and different devices that could have brought them to it.

Rita Felski too, in Uses of Literature, talks about the ways that texts need to connect with us, and “make friends” – surviving history necessarily because they make connections with people again and again.

So, will you be reading more in 2021? Reader, you already are.The Conversation

Alexandra Paddock, Lecturer in English and Assistant Senior Tutor, University of Oxford and Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, Professor of English and Theatre Studies, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Teen summer reads: 5 novels to help cope with adversity and alienation



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Kate Douglas, Flinders University

This article is part of our three-part series on summer reads for young people after a very unique year.


2020 has been a particularly tough year for those approaching the latter years of high school.

Young people have witnessed large-scale economic insecurity and unstable education systems. Teenagers have reported high levels of stress and anxiety. But they have also demonstrated outstanding resilience and resolve in adapting to the “new normal”.

During COVID-19, cultural texts have become more important than ever — a place to turn to for knowledge, reflection, support and escape.




Read more:
How reading habits have changed during the COVID-19 lockdown


Reading can be therapeutic for young readers during difficult times. It offers something other media doesn’t — greater social and emotional benefits. It also does more to stimulate the imagination and creates a sense of moral achievement in readers.

With this in mind, here are some summer reading ideas for older teenagers. The texts I have chosen demonstrate how young characters have coped with trauma and uncertainty.

Research suggests young people are more likely to listen to their peers than their teachers when it comes to reading recommendations.

So, I spoke to my 18-year-old son and asked him to name five types of books he would like to read over the summer.

He suggested:

  • a classic book he’s always wanted to read but hasn’t
  • a book penned by a young author
  • a “throwback” young adult novel he has already read
  • an autobiography of someone who has overcome adversity
  • something provocative that was published this year.

Inevitably some of my selections meet more than one of his criteria.

1. The classic: The Outsiders (1967)

by S.E. Hinton

The cover of S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders
The Outsiders is thought to be one of the first novels written specifically for young adults.
Penguin

The Outsiders is thought to be one of the first novels written specifically for young adults. The coming of age novel explores the class divide between the rival Greasers and Socs gangs in the American South in the mid-1960s.

The book’s challenging and emotive representations of inequality, violence, crises of conscience, and the powerful love of family and friends, make it an enduring standout for young readers. The first-person narration constructs intimacy between the reader and our protagonist, Ponyboy Curtis, as he approaches an increasingly uncertain future.

Hinton started the book at 15, finished it at 16, and it was published when she was 18. It is said she wrote the book because it was the sort of book she herself wanted to read.

In a year when many young people have experienced isolation and separation, Ponyboy’s wisdoms should resonate powerfully:

It seemed funny to me that the sunset she saw from her patio and the one I saw from the back steps was the same one. Maybe the two different worlds we lived in weren’t so different. We saw the same sunset.

2. Autobiography (memoir): Crazy Brave (2012)

by Joy Harjo

Cover of Crazy Brave: a memoir
Joy Harjo’s memoir is confronting and, at times, graphic.
W.W. Norton

Cherokee, Creek painter, musician and US Poet Laureate, Harjo wrote her memoir when she was 61.

Crazy Brave recalls her early life from birth to her early 20s. The story is abstract and non-linear in structure, making the memoir unpredictable, which destabilises the reader’s experience.

Harjo’s memoir is confronting and, at times, graphic. But her spiritual connections, and trust of her own “knowing” (instinct, or inner vision) will inspire readers keen to escape problematic right or wrong, or black and white perceptions of experience. As Harjo astutely observes:

In the end, we must each tend to our own gulfs of sadness, though others can assist us with kindness, food, good words, and music. Our human tendency is to fill these holes with distractions like shopping and fast romance, or with drugs and alcohol.

3. Young author: A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing (2020)

by Jessie Tu

The cover of Jessie Tu's A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing
This is not a fun read, but it is a timely one.
Allen & Unwin

28-year-old Tu’s debut novel presents 22-year-old violinist child prodigy Jena Chung. We follow Jena’s sense of alienation and detachment as she attempts to find meaning in the world.

Lonely Girl is not a fun read, but it is a timely one. We need to see more Asian-Australia women’s voices in literature because of the important provocations they make about race and misogyny in Australia. Tu wanted this novel to be a conversation starter and it certainly is.

Tu’s is a powerful intervention young readers will appreciate. It is a book about making bad choices while feeling so much pressure to be “good”:

I throw myself into things, expecting always to get what I want. And I always get what I want. Now it feels like I’ve failed all over again. Only this time there’s no motivation behind it. I’ve just failed myself, and it hurts in a strange, unfamiliar way. The wound is deeper than anything I’ve ever felt.

This novel contains graphic representations of sex. It is recommended for readers 17 and over.

4. Written in 2020: The Morbids (2020)

by Ewa Ramsey

The cover of Ewa Ramsey's, The Morbids
This is Newcastle-based author Ewa Ramsey’s debut novel.
Allen & Unwin

This is a wonderfully compassionate book about living with anxiety caused by our 20-something protagonist Caitlin’s fear of death. The Morbids explores the value of friendship and romance amid youthful fears and phobias.

Ramsey’s debut novel is a difficult read. The style of the novel (fragmented, sometimes repetitive language) attempts to bring the reader closer to the experience of mental illness. But the characterisations are warm and the moral is ultimately hopeful.

It’s a book about therapy and letting people in when it is the last thing you feel like you can do, because “Sometimes you need to give up on death … to have the time of your life”.

5. Throwback: Love, Creekwood (2020)

by Becky Albertalli

The cover of Becky Albertalli's, Love, Creekwood
Love, Creekwood is narrated via the characters’ emails to each other.
Penguin

Not exactly a throwback, but if you enjoyed Simon vs the Homosapiens Agenda as much as my teens and I did, here is the latest instalment of the Simonverse.

Love, Creekwood is a short epistolary romance novella (the story is narrated via the characters’ emails to each other). It is “part 3.5” in the series and functions as an epilogue.

Love, Creekwood follows the characters to college and we follow the progression of two same-sex relationships. The book explores the challenges of being too close and too far away from a partner. It explores the mental health struggles often triggered by loneliness and fear.

Love, Creekwood is a light-hearted but genuine representation of what the first year of university can feel like.

As Simon explains:

When we say we want to freeze time, what we mean is that we want to control our memories. We want to choose which moments we’ll keep forever. We want to guarantee the best ones won’t slip away from us somehow. So when something beautiful happens, there’s this impulse to press pause and save the game. We want to make sure we can find our way back to that moment.

Albertalli is donating all proceeds from the sale of this novella to The Trevor Project, an organisation committed to crisis and suicide prevention for LGBTQIA youth.




Read more:
Teen summer reads: how to escape to another world after a year stuck in this one


The author would like to thank to Katerina Bryant, Kylie Cardell, Joshua Douglas-Spencer and Emma Maguire for sharing ideas for this article.The Conversation

Kate Douglas, Professor, Flinders University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Teen summer reads: how to escape to another world after a year stuck in this one



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Troy Potter, University of Melbourne

This article is part of three-part series on summer reads for young people after a very unique year.


As this tumultuous year comes to a close, the Australian summer is an ideal time to relax and escape through reading.

Like many people, Australian teenagers have experienced higher rates of psychological distress this year as a result of the COVID pandemic. Reading is one way for teens to remove themselves, if only temporarily, from their current stresses.

As fantasy writer Neil Gaiman said:

Books make great gifts because they have whole worlds inside of them.

Young adult novels also present alternative ways of being and resolving crises. This is because a defining characteristic of young adult books relates to power. In novels for young adults, teen protagonists learn how to use their power to navigate social situations, whether in families, schools, their community or, indeed, other worlds.

In this way, young adult literature can be considered both a form of escapism and empowerment.

According to Teen Reading in the Digital Era — a study conducted by Deakin University — teenagers have diverse reading preferences. The study identified five of these: fantasy, contemporary realist fiction, science fiction, autobiography or biography, and action or adventure.

With this in mind, here are some recommendations for your teen’s summer reading to help them both escape and, hopefully, re-empower themselves.

Aurora has woken up in the year 2380.
Penguin Random House

The Aurora Cycle

by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Teenagers who feel they’re finally emerging from a tough year of restrictions may empathise with Aurora Jie-Lin O’Malley, who has woken up from a 200-year cryosleep (where your body is cooled down and preserved in liquid nitrogen) to find herself in the year 2380.

Aurora secretly joins a group of graduating cadets on their first mission. What should be a simple cargo run ends up being a cat-and-mouse chase across the galaxy. In trying to find her place in a new universe, Aurora and the cadets uncover an ancient alien species who has spent millions of years preparing to take over the galaxy.

Told from the perspective of each of the seven teenage protagonists, the Aurora Cycle is a new action science-fiction series. It currently comprises the books Aurora Rising (2019) and Aurora Burning (2020).

Other intergalactic action-adventure sci-fi books teenagers may enjoy include A Confusion of Princes (2012) by Garth Nix, Mindcull (2019) by K. H. Canobi, and Kaufman and Kristoff’s earlier series, The Illuminae Files (2015–2016).

Monuments is a duology.
Hachette

Monuments (2019) and Rebel Gods (2020)

by Will Kostakis

A scavenger hunt for buried gods may be just the thing teenagers need to get their minds moving. In this urban fantasy duology, Connor learns about the Monuments — powerful gods who have hidden themselves to protect humanity.

Joined by Sarah and Locky, Connor searches across contemporary Sydney, trying to uncover the gods. However, despite their awesome powers, the Monuments need protecting, too. The problem is Connor doesn’t know who he can trust with the knowledge and power of the gods.

This is author Will Kostakis’ first foray into the fantastical.

Other fantasy novels for teenagers to get lost in include the bewitching The Last Balfour (2019) by Cait Duggan; Four Dead Queens (2019) — a murder mystery by by Astrid Scholte; and the Old Kingdom series (1995–2016) by Garth Nix.

This novel is mainly made up of instant messenger conversations.
Harper Collins

The Long Distance Playlist (2020)

by Tara Eglington

Having spent more time on a screen this year than before, what better way for teenagers to re-engage with novels than to read one that’s written in instant messenger, text, emails, prose and playlists?

Eglington’s fourth young adult novel centres on teenagers Taylor and Isolde, who live in Wanaka (New Zealand) and Sydney, respectively. Friends since childhood, the two reconnect across the Tasman after an 18-month long fight.

As they exchange cross-country messages over the course of the year, they help support each other through their ordeals and, in doing so, realise relationships can develop over distances.

Two more realist young adult novels in which teenagers connect with others include 19 Love Songs (2020) by David Levithan and It Sounded Better in My Head (2019) by Nina Kenwood.

This graphic novel is a biography of a man who fought against Nazi oppression.
John Hendrix

The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler (2018)

by John Hendrix

Teenagers who prefer to read about the lives of others may be interested in this graphic biography. It tells the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian who resisted the Nazi regime and was associated with the plot to kill Hitler.

Using a red-black-teal colour scheme, the mixture of text and illustration details Bonhoeffer’s life and outlines the larger historical context of Hitler’s rise to power and the second world war. Cited material is asterisked, and a select bibliography and limited notes are included.

A graphic autobiography (about a girl growing up during the Iranian Revolution) teenagers may also enjoy is Persepolis (2000) by Marjane Satrapi.




Read more:
5 Australian books that can help young people understand their place in the world


For other lists of recommended young adult novels, check out the CBCA’s notables or Inside a Dog, a website for teens to share reviews, recommendations and their own creative writing.The Conversation

Troy Potter, Lecturer, The University of Melbourne, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Reading Harry Potter in a new light during the coronavirus pandemic



Harry Potter’s adventures take on a new significance during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
(Shutterstock)

J. Andrew Deman, University of Waterloo

This has not been the best year for the Harry Potter franchise, assailed as it has been by the fallout from transphobic comments by J.K. Rowling and an abuse scandal surrounding Johnny Depp, star of the Fantastic Beasts spin-off franchise.

Of course, this hasn’t been the best year for a lot of things as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent isolation protocols. It is curious, then, that this beleaguered franchise — so dear to the hearts of a generation of readers — and the lockdown of the global population might combine to create something with resonance, entirely by accident.

The first six books of the Harry Potter series took place at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, an enchanted boarding school filled with danger, mystery and magic. But for the seventh book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Rowling chose to deviate from her established practice by setting it in isolation. Harry, Hermione and (sometimes) Ron were cut off from their familiar routines and lives, suffering through loneliness, resource shortages, cabin fever, frustration and a terrifying new world order.

The trailer for ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.’

Transforming meanings

For a lot of people looking back on this story, it screams 2020 — it has everything but the surgical masks.

We can write this off to an accident of history, but it also connects us to a number of compelling developments in literary theory, including French philosopher Michel Foucault’s theory of the episteme, American literary historian Stephen Greenblatt’s New Historicism and British semiotician Gunther Kress’s theory of semiotic resources, all of which point (in one way or another) to the simple fact that the meaning of a text is dependent on the cultural circumstances surrounding it.

As our world changed, the cultural significance of Harry Potter changed with it.

In a pandemic society, reading lines like “the pure, colourless vastness of the sky stretched over him, indifferent to him and his suffering” takes on a new capacity for immersion. Harry’s experiences of isolation and anxiety now bring him closer to us, make him more relatable and identifiable, just as a pandemic-addled society can now, in turn, grow closer to Harry and understand in greater depth the heavy psychological toll that being cut off from his life at Hogwarts must be taking on him.

This is especially true for high school students in 2020. The interruption of Harry’s education, adolescence and general pathway to the adult world is again all too familiar to the average 12th grader, who could not possibly have expected their steady progression through the curriculum to be waylaid by a virus any more than Harry could have expected to lose his final year at Hogwarts to a Death Eater coup.

We can reach further too, and allow that deepened understanding of Harry’s isolation to ripple through the narrative, enhancing things like the joy of his return to Hogwarts and overthrow of Voldemort, or the depth of his friendship to Hermione for standing by him through the worst of it. Our familiarity with his isolation makes his victories all the sweeter.

Re-visiting literature

This phenomenon is nothing new. Consider, for example, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a treatise on the dangers of communism, and Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Novel, a dire warning about government surveillance and totalitarianism. At the height of the Cold War, Animal Farm provided sharp criticism of the hypocrisy of Communist regimes, one that resonated with a western audience affronted by the so-called “red scare.”

As the Cold War diminished, so too did the immersive potential of Animal Farm as a novel, which reads as more of a barnyard fable to an audience unfamiliar with the U.S.S.R. As for Nineteen Eighty-Four, it saw a renaissance during the George W. Bush era with the passing of the Patriot Act and the surveillance initiatives it contained.

The front-matter section of 1984 by George Orwell
George Orwell’s novel ‘1984’ keeps receiving new significance, even though its original context may be unfamiliar to contemporary readers.
(Shutterstock)

The point is simple: a story’s longevity and the legacy of its author are deeply dependent upon historical context, and since the author can’t see into the future, we have to acknowledge the role of chance as a co-author of some our most beloved texts. Even the Bard himself has had his fair share of happy accidents.

So where does this leave Harry Potter, our most recent literary phenomenon? Adrift, perhaps, but not entirely. Both Shakespeare and Orwell’s works acquire new meanings as the times change, and so too does Rowling’s series, which is a dynamic and engaging fictional world that has the potential to stand outside of time itself, to some degree, if it needs to.

How Harry’s journey is met by each subsequent generation of enthusiasts is changing, and will continue to change with the world that surrounds us. The perception that texts are stable entities is an illusion.

When COVID-19 went viral, Harry Potter caught it and was changed by it, just as we all were. Having a new excuse to read an old favourite in the light of a new world is by no means the worst thing in these trying times, especially when we’re all stuck at home anyway.The Conversation

J. Andrew Deman, Professor of English, University of Waterloo

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.