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Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

Reading is NOT Dead

Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer

I met Harry Potter last weekend, and I've got to tell you that it was a pretty positive experience. Suddenly I'm a little more optimistic about books, reading, and young people in general.

For those of you without children, TV's, or any knowledge of the world around you, Harry Potter is the star of a series of wildly successful children's books written by J. K. Rowling. The release of the fourth book in the series - Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire - last Friday night was a big media event worldwide. Bookstores stayed open past midnight just so they could start selling the book at 12:01 AM; kids and their parents lined-up for blocks in order to buy the book. It was truly a milestone in book publishing (and media) history.

So I went.

A keen observer of the media scene, I wanted to see just what was going to happen, so at 11 PM, I headed off to the local Barnes & Noble bookstore. Frankly, I expected to see maybe a hundred or so customers lined up to buy the book at one minute past midnight. In my mind, I saw sleepy, fussy kids in pajamas being dragged by their parents (or sleepy, fussy parents dragged by their kids) into a bookstore in the middle of the night to be among the first to buy Potter's new book.

The first indication of just how wrong I was occurred in the parking lot, where I couldn't find a space. I finally had to park at the big cinema complex behind the bookstore (a piece of media irony not lost upon me). The bookstore was PACKED with people even at 11:30! My guess is that there were a thousand or so people there. But they were not as I expected them to be.

Many of the kids were in costume - tall, pointed wizard hats, black capes, and old-fashioned, black-rimmed eyeglasses (This was also the uniform for all store personnel, too). One kid, about ten years old, I guessed, was dressed in a formal tuxedo. They weren't in lines so much as they were spread in serpentine patterns throughout the whole store. And they were generally patient, cheerful, and friendly - both the kids and the parents.

I gathered that there had already been a costume contest and a "guess the jellybeans in the jar" contest and other activities to keep the kids occupied - along with free soft drinks and coffee - but kids and parents both either waited patiently in what they hoped was an actual line or browsed through book displays. I saw one kid pick up an SAT Preparation Guide from a prominent display and ask his mother, "What's THIS for?" Before I could give him my opinion of SAT's and preparation guides, however, his mother had steered him over to the line.

A few kids were playing, trying to go down the up escalator, thinking it wildly amusing to be walking like crazy and not getting anywhere (Ah! The innocence of youth!), and there were a few PA announcements for lost kids, but mostly it seemed like a huge party.

The bookstore personnel were genuinely enjoying it all, even the frustrations of trying to form actual lines, first to pass out the books and then to get people through the registers. Once, one of them asked, "We know where the beginning of the line is, but don't know where the end is. If you're at the end of the line, please raise your hand." Twenty hands immediately shot up, from all over the store. Everyone laughed.

But the "line managers" tried to sort things out, and at one minute past midnight, a clerk got on the PA system and read the first sentence from the new book, and sales began. There was no rush, no panic, no pushing and shouting - they simply passed out the books to everyone waiting and the crowd slowly moved toward the registers.

The next day I called Chris Cayer, store manager, to ask him about the phenomenon. He said that he had never seen anything like it before. When I commented on the cheerfulness, good humor, and patience of all those people at midnight, he pointed out the "innate patience of book readers. They're used to taking their time with things." He said that the store went though about 1500 books in just over an hour, confirming my observations that many customers bought more than one copy.

There are some who think that this whole thing was merely a sales gimmick, but Cayer disagrees. "Even before the book went on sale, it was on the bestseller list, so we were selling it for 40% off list price even the first night," he pointed out. It was more than just about making money, he said. The bookstore went to great pains to make the whole thing an enjoyable experience (and it was), trying to represent and give something back to the community.

Even on the phone the next day, his voice was animated. "Did you SEE all of those kids last night?" he asked. "It was wonderful! Their world was expanding."

Their world was expanding indeed. With a book, which was nice to see.

Yeah, I know it's too early to make sweeping generalizations about a resurgence in reading among young people, and no, this may not necessarily signal a societal change.

But it was nice to see nonetheless.

People - youngsters included - excited about a book. Patient, cheerful, and civil - sipping free coffee or soda while the bookstore sold the 700 page tome at discount rather than premium prices.

All of it was good to see, and I'm glad I went to meet Harry and his fans.