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Is ‘escapism’ need of the hour?

Khalid Saleem

THE situation in this blessed land being what it is, there has been a lot of thinking about what is needed to bring the Ship of State to an even keel. Having tried all known systems of government and having successively handed over the wheel of the ship of state to ‘saviors’ of all ilks and genres, the thinkers of the country must be at their wits end. There is a faint glimmer of hope, though. If we keep on moving on the same track and in the same fashion, what may be needed to set things right is a Harry Potter and his magic wand.
The way Ms. Rowling caught the fancy of young and old with her bizarre but very readable narrative of the adventures of that lovable young wizard, Harry Potter, is a tribute both to her imagination and her understanding of human nature. The way the younger generation hankered after her books is nothing short of phenomenal. What made it even more impressive is the fact that, before Ms. Rowling’s books took the literary world by storm, it was generally feared that the art of book reading, especially among the youth, had met an untimely demise. The Harry Potter phenomenon apparently proved all that wrong.
It may be of some interest to cite a report from Frankfurt, circa 2002-2003, that the World’s largest Book Fair in that city had formally “thanked Harry Potter for helping to rear a new generation of eager young readers around the globe”. The organizers of the said Book Fair cited the popularity of Potter’s gripping exploits as “living proof that the book is not dead yet in the age of electronic media”. Now that one looks at it from this perspective, one cannot but agree with the conclusion drawn by the organizers of the Frankfurt Book Fair.
Be that as it may, the fact remains that book reading – as a knack – appears to be losing out to the demon of Information Technology. There are those who make do with the hotchpotch dished out by the electronic media; others prefer to wait for the film version or the television series. One wonders if the reader remembers the time when, after having read the book, one viewed the film or television version with serious misgivings. As like as not, one invariably arrived at the conclusion that the visual record was nowhere as vivid as the written word picture. One would, then, proceed to re-read the book to confirm one’s assessment. Ah, those were the days!
Recent advances made by computer technology appear to have made matters worse. The practice of leisurely reading has gone out the window, so to speak (the Harry Potter phenomenon notwithstanding). One ruefully recalls the days when one used to save to buy a good book. Then, one read it at leisure; savored it and, if it lived up to its promise, read it a second or even a third time. In fact, the real flavor of a good book could best be absorbed only on the second or third reading. But, sadly, all this was before life was overtaken by the Information Technology revolution. The good news is that, thanks to Harry Potter, all is not lost yet. If the younger generation was out there in droves queuing up to buy the latest Harry Potter tome, it stands to reason that they intended to read it, all five/six hundred odd pages of it. The art of reading may yet be resuscitated. Let’s hope that that the Harry Potter books turn out to be the exception that proves the rule!
Why did the Harry Potter books garner so much popularity? After all, no one in his or her right mind would classify the Rowling tomes as being among the greats of even contemporary literature. To find the rationale, one must make an effort to discern the mental attitude of the Western multitude – and their Eastern neophytes – that represent the bedrock of the book-buying crowd. What makes them plump for literature of the type that Ms. Rowling dishes out in the hundreds of pages of her wizardry-filled narratives?
It is possible to give the answer in one word: escapism. Surprisingly, a good section of people in the so-called developed world are looking for a vehicle to escape the realities of life. The designated ‘spin-doctors’ are out to filter their daily intake of reality in such a way that they see life only through rose-colored glasses. They are conditioned to dwell only on ‘our way of life’, ‘our view of human rights’ and, in general ‘our civilization’. Nothing else appears to matter. In this make-believe scenario, books like the Harry Potter series provide the perfect escape route away from the mundane realities of the real world.
There is little harm in going for this type of literature as a basis for entertainment. Life being the serious business that it is, a small dose of escapism, as a means of relieving tension, may be just what the doctor ordered. The time to agonize comes when perfectly sane persons start to exhibit the regrettable tendency to confuse real life with the fairy tale. The world is, hopefully, not blundering towards such a calamitous denouement, as civilisation as we know it continues its bumbling march onward (?). So far as the scenario in this part of the world goes, escapism already appears to be taking over from reality. So there you have it!
— The writer is a former ambassador and former assistant secretary general of OIC.