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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Tuesday, April 16

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The Depths of Potter

I've not read any of the Harry Potter books, nor have I seen either of the feature films. With the third Potter film already in production, I take a certain pride in this.

You think me stuck up and snobbish. I see you out there, your eyes rolling as you wonder why it is you read this condescending prick of an article.

I've no time for childish things. The sight of adults indulging in the sanitized fantasy world of children? It's offensive. Alternating between page 365 of the latest Potter novel (the longest book they've ever read) and the current smarm from Red Eye and/or Red Streak, I taste bile when I see them on the train.

I'm not alone in this. A.S. Byatt, author of Possession and other Gwyneth Paltrowish literary vehicles, feels much the same way:

Ms. Rowling's magic world has no place for the numinous. It is written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, and the exaggerated (more exciting, not threatening) mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip. Its values, and everything in it, are, as Gatsby said of his own world when the light had gone out of his dream, 'only personal.'"

What she's saying, should you need help filtering out the condescension, is that Harry Potter is shallow writing for shallow people.

I concern myself, therefore, with a more sophisticated literature. Have you read the latest issue of Thor? What of the new Star Trek novels? And Finding Nemo -- did you see it on DVD? Positively brilliant. A work of genius.

Tesla & Holmes

In the employ of the University of Chicago, it's difficult to avoid a certain academic mindset. While I lack the intellectual credentials to take part in the process directly, I enjoy dabbling on the side from time to time.

In my experience, graduate and doctoral theses often take the following form: One draws upon two or more seemingly unrelated and disparate topics and demonstrates that they are, in fact, connected in an interesting and novel way. The web of knowledge grows, and degrees are conferred.

(My friends in higher degree programs will find this oversimplification of their work offensive. Still, I press on...)

Though I don't suppose I'll ever need it, I've a corker of a dissertation ready to go: Nikola Tesla & John C. Holmes: A Study of Pillaged Genius

What, you ask, could a brilliant electrical engineer have in common with a freakishly endowed star of pornographic films?

Very much indeed, as it happens.

A Capitalist economy revolves around the exploitation of resources -- be they human or otherwise. Prescient entrepreneurs, therefore, often look to hitch their wagons to the nearest starry eyed genius. To profit from the hard work of another is the very essence of the American experience.

Tesla and Holmes proved handy rockets to wealth for investors. Westinghouse, Marconi and J.P. Morgan made fortunes off the work of Tesla, and the multi-billion dollar porn industry owes much of its success to the singularly unique talents of Holmes. Both men died penniless; abandoned by those who made fortunes from their labors.

In short: Both Tesla and Holmes were used by industry, and summarily disposed of when their wells ran dry. Tesla fed the pigeons while starving himself and Holmes was an early victim of AIDS.


With a bit of padding, and a few pages of endnotes, I might well earn myself an honorary degree from a small community college.

Or perhaps I've spent too much time in the documentary and pornography sections of my local video store -- the aisles are close together.

GB store


Alice / November 7, 2003 8:46 AM

Harry Potter is shallow writing for shallow people.

It's a children's book for cryin' out loud. So adults want to read it - big deal. I've been known to go back and reread Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in my advanced age. Does that mean I'm mentally stunted or that I can't or don't enjoy "adult" literature? No. A fun story is a fun story - no matter what your age.

And if you don't believe children are reading Harry Potter, spend a few hours listening to the kids on or talk to any children's librarian - kids are obsessed with the books, and I think that's great because it's also turning them on to other books - better books, if you want to argue the point.

About 40 million adults in this country are functionally illiterate. And, even among those who can read, many don't. So, as far as I'm concerned, the fact that they're reading at all is a good thing. I wouldn't stress about what they're reading just yet. Not everyone is destined to read War and Peace, but if Harry Potter can get an otherwise non-reading adult into the public library, I'll be there to welcome them with open arms.

Sorry for the rant, and you're more than welcome to disagree, but I just think it needs to be said.

Ian Olsen-Clark / November 7, 2003 9:43 AM

I will not alert my Potter crazed wife’s attention to this piece, but should she come across it, I cannot guarantee your personal safety. I note with interest, an A S Byatt or two on her bookshelf as well.

The overall tone of this article was quite appalling. Please keep up the good work.

Naz / November 7, 2003 11:15 AM

I agree with Alice and Ian. While I haven't picked up a Potter book, I have plenty of friends who do and I do not consider them shallow in the least. I do pick up Roald Dahl books, both his children's and more adult fare and find them still excellent little books for what they are to this day.

I also agree that Red Eye and Red Streak are watered down "lite" versions of their "adult" counterparts but like Alice mentioned, if it gets people reading, this is a good thing. Movies seems to help when they make a movie version of a book, as I tend to notice in stores and on the train, people reading the novels of the movie in the cinema. I always thought that was an interesting happenstance, as in the case of Lord of the Rings (and Potter as well).

dce / November 7, 2003 11:41 AM

Dear indignant persons,

Please re-read the last paragraph of the first story. In it, I refer to my own obsession with such haute couture materials as Marvel comic books, Star Trek, and animated films about tropical fish.

It was an oblique effort at self deprecation, and an indication that my dislike of the Potter masses is altogether untenable. I was outing myself for calling the kettle black, as it were.

So relax - enjoy Harry Potter and feel good about it.

About those Red papers, however, I'll not budge. Tiny articles (it's quite hard to find an item that runs off a single page, let alone its alloted column inch) devoid of context and background are actively harmful.

Better to be uninformed than misinformed.

Moving on; how about this weeks other feature? Any thoughts on the eccentricity of Tesla or the enormity of Holmes?

- Dave

Andrew / November 7, 2003 11:44 AM

Enormous eccentricity. That's all I have to say about it.

Naz / November 7, 2003 12:23 PM

I was so going to call you out on that Star Trek mention but I wanted to play dumb. Truth be told, I have never ever read a Red Eye/Streak, so I can't judge them and I'm not about to (read them that is).

I won't say anything about Tesla but Holmes is an interesting case. Have you seen Wonderland yet Dave? It deals with the post-"career" of Holmes and specifically the Wonderland murders. While it is a movie, both his last lover and his wife were consultants on the movie. Holmes didn't seem quite like a tragedy. Oh, and Boogie Nights' Dirk Diggler is also loosely based on Holmes.

Phineas Jones / November 7, 2003 1:44 PM

I caught the wry twist there Dave.

I would say to Ms. Byatt, however, that before she starts getting all up in J.K.'s business she should take another look at the perfectly retarded Scooby-Doo-caliber ending of Possession. And on that topic, no one should ever take a first or subsequent look at the film version, as it is utter bollocks.

Sounds a bit jealous to me.

Paul / November 7, 2003 2:04 PM

I find Phineas's comment about Scooby Doo as stuck-up and snoobish. Scooby Doo is simply the most important work of contemporary mystery fiction, second only to the Hardy Boys.

As for the Red papers, I would say that it's better to be uninformed than underinformed.

Naz / November 7, 2003 2:48 PM

Eddie Izzard makes a good point that Scooby Doo and Shaggy are important multi-cultural icons.

Ramsin / November 7, 2003 3:37 PM

Dave- I got your point right off the bat. And good thing, too. "I have no time for childish things," would have sounded ridiculous coming from you.

Ian Olsen-Clark / November 7, 2003 4:20 PM

Why is everybody so down on the ‘Red’ papers? Coming from England, land of the tabloids, I find their flimsy content and lack of depth quite comforting.

Phineas / November 8, 2003 10:34 AM

Maybe everyone would lighten up on the Red papers if they had Page Three Girls like back in dear ol' Blighty. Or then again, possibly not.

Ian Olsen-Clark / November 8, 2003 3:07 PM

Some features of a nation, don't travel well. Page three girls fall into this category, along with soccer hooligans and most of the royal family.

Pete / November 10, 2003 4:28 PM

The "Finding Nemo" kudos should have been an obvious tipoff that this was satire. And I wholeheartedly concur with Dave's "Red" papers opinion: what amazes me even more than their continued existence is that one of them (I can't tell them apart) has the audacity to charge a 25 cent cover price.

Jeff / November 18, 2003 2:43 AM

There is one tabloid that should be considered good farce ... The Weekly World News. Why? Here's a headline:


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