The Magic of Reading Harry Potter, or Just the Magic of Reading?

If you have been following the recent Internet buzz around Harry Potter, you are probably aware that studies suggest reading the novels will make you a better person. I’m sure it’s true. I’m never one to argue that reading will help you become more empathetic, more compassionate, and result in you becoming more aware of marginalized groups. However, much of the buzz around this study fails to acknowledge the long-standing connection between reading and empathy, quite apart from the Harry Potter books and their effect on young readers.
The study in question is “The Greatest Magic of Harry Potter: Reducing Prejudice,” which appeared in The Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 2015. You can find the study yourself, if you have access to a university library data base. This group of researchers tested three groups of young people. They set out to test if positive identification with the main character of a particular fantasy series—that being Harry Potter—would result in higher levels of sympathy towards marginalized groups, such as immigrants, refugees, and members of the LGBTQ community. Surprise surprise—the researchers discovered that young people who positively identified with Harry felt more empathy towards stigmatized groups.
The study undeniably makes a point about three select groups of young people who read Harry Potter. And yet, I don’t entirely know what to do with it. Perhaps that’s because I’m not a social scientist. As someone who teaches literature, and someone who teaches Harry Potter on a regular basis, I’m unsurprised by the results, but I am surprised by people’s reaction. A life time of reading has shown me how reading can expand my sense of the world, particularly of people I know nothing about. More important are the interactions that can emerge out of reading-in the classroom or with other readers. Talking to one another about the books we love fosters a dialogue that can become the vehicle for marked and radical change.
Studies on the positive effects of reading are plentiful. Just Google “reading and empathy” and you will see what I mean. Does this take away from the research on Harry Potter? Not necessarily. But it does suggest some perspective is in order.
A piece in Scientific American from 2013, for example, comments on a study examining the benefits of reading literary fiction, while a 2016 article in The Atlantic discusses studies on reading and the theory of mind, which suggest reading, while beneficial, will not give you super powers.
All this to say, reading Harry Potter will help make you a better person, but so will reading C. S. Lewis, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Alice Munro, Alice Walker, Elizabeth Smart, rohinton Mistry, as well as a thousand others. While social media has expanded people’s spheres of contact in astonishing ways, nothing takes the place of reading, then telling someone close to you about the book that just blew your mind. As the holidays approach and you stock up on books to get you through to the New Year. Remember to come out of your quiet corner now and then to tell somebody about what you’ve discovered. Happy reading!

2 thoughts on “The Magic of Reading Harry Potter, or Just the Magic of Reading?”

  1. I agree – my reaction to studies like this is “And that’s a surprise how?”
    However, one of the things that’s unique about Harry Potter is the sheer popularity of this particular book series with a particular generation of young people, and it is that which makes it worth studying. Yes, the adage “You are what you read” holds true across the literary spectrum – but the reality about HP is that, unlike with the other authors you mentioned, *most* kids of the millennial generation read or watched the stories during their childhood, and therefore the books have had a more profound influence on a generation of young people than many other books.
    One book/study that I found very interesting in this context is “Harry Potter and the Millennials” (by Anthony Gierzynski).
    So, all that to say that while I agree with you on all your points, I do believe that Harry Potter holds a bit of a special position – and not just in the hearts of all his fans. 🙂

    1. Angelika. Thanks for your comment. It’s true that HP has a particular place in the lives of millennials. I’ve seen that first-hand. My own kids grew up with the books, and we spent many hours reading and talking about the books. Thanks for the book suggestion as well. I’m going to check it out.

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