Is Pottermore Good for Harry?

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Akira Suemori / AP

British author J.K. Rowling announces her new project Pottermore at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on June 23, 2011

The big reveal has been revealed: Pottermore is ... an interactive thingy. A website, with assorted digital services. Harry Potter fans can enter and be sorted by the Hat and wanded by Ollivander. We can look at new images from the books (images not derived from the movies, and judging by the quality of the animations that went with the announcement, I'm hopeful). We can compete on behalf of our houses for the coveted House Cup. We can finally buy e-books of the novels.

The best news here — and I wasn't sure it was coming — is that all this virtual fluff is built around a solid, crunchy core: J.K. Rowling has written new material, 18,000 words of it (that's about a quarter the length of The Sorcerer's Stone, if you're counting). Not new Harry stories, presumably, but she's gone further in fleshing out the Potterverse, which was already a deliciously fleshy creation.

This is wonderful news. When Rowling does what she does best, it's the closest thing to magic available in our mundane, Mugglish world. And I say that as both a Harry Potter fan and the father of a Harry Potter fan.

(It's also good news for Sony, a company that's lately been back on its heels. It's hard to say why Rowling chose Sony to partner with on this, but Sony has to be happy to have her in its corner. Naturally, the site has spent most of the first morning of its public life hosed by traffic and unable to accept e-mail addresses.)

As for the rest of it ... I'll admit it, it makes me a little melancholy, just as the Wizarding World of Harry Potter made me melancholy.

There are two things that separate reading from other media experiences. One is that reading is better: it's richer and deeper and more complex and more beautiful. It's more intellectually rewarding. And I say this as, among other things, a hard-core video gamer. All media have their strengths. I just think reading's strengths are strongest.

But reading is also harder than other media. Your brain does more work when you're reading. Movies and music and games and interactive thingies all supply your brain with a huge amount of information. Literally: there's a reason why video and audio files are so much bigger than text files. They're handing you a huge amount of data, which you can then sit back and enjoy.

Whereas when you read, it's your brain that's generating all that data. That's hard work. Your brain makes all the props and sets, does the voices and renders all those fancy digital effects. When you read, you're truly collaborating with the author — it's not a passive experience; it's an active one that binds you to the book you're reading in a way no other medium can. It's hard. It's work. And you're richly rewarded for it.

But when publishers mix reading with other media, the way Pottermore does (or the way that The 39 Clues, another Scholastic creation, does), I find it confusing. Every time I see more of the Potterverse realized in other media, as video or audio or even still images, it undoes the work I did by reading about it. It takes away from the marvelous, handmade Potterverse I've got going on in my head and replaces it with something prefabricated. It was prefabricated by a super-talented artist, but still.

I'm absolutely sure that everybody involved with Pottermore, from Rowling on down, has the best of intentions. Rowling has said, explicitly, that she wants the site to stick close to the literary experience of the books, as it should. But how close can it stick? All that extra stuff — video, music, interactivity, games — is easy, while reading takes mental muscle. I suppose there's some hope that younger readers will be lured into reading even more by all the bells and whistles of Pottermore, but I think it just as likely that the whistles will lure them out of reading, like the Pied Piper. The Web offers easier, cheaper thrills than reading does, and once kids get a taste for them, not all of them will make the hard choice and stick with reading. Their muscles will go slack.

Harry Potter is all about making hard choices — the choice to love and sacrifice oneself, when it's easier to hate and fear and sacrifice other people — and the rewards that come with making those hard choices. But Pottermore isn't about that. It mixes reading with other, easier media. By doing that, I worry that it sends a mixed message too.