It should probably come as no big surprise (especially since I’ve mentioned it before) that I’m a Chuck Klosterman fan. And, like Anthony Hopkins, I’m not much of a Harry Potter fan. In this month’s Esquire, Klosterman tackles the Harry Potter phenomenon in a way few have. And, a way I would agree with. Klosterman proposes, “Ignoring a cultural phenomenon today may render you completely irrelevant in a few years.” The crux of his argument:
The bookish kids reading Harry Potter novels may not go on to control the world, but they will almost certainly go on to control the mass media. In fifteen years, they will be publishing books and directing films and writing broad jokes for unfunny situation comedies that will undoubtedly be downloaded directly into our brains. And like all generations of artists, they will traffic in their own nostalgia. They will use their shared knowledge and experiences as the foundation for discourse. So I wonder: Because I don’t understand Harry Potter, am I doomed to misunderstand everything else?
I have a female friend who has never seen any of the Star Wars movies; if someone on The Office makes a joke about a Wookiee, she knows that it’s supposed to be funny, but it never makes her laugh. I also know a guy from college who (under pressure) cannot name three Beatles songs unless you allow him to include their cover of “Twist and Shout,” and that’s only because it was used in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. On a practical level, those specific knowledge chasms do not hinder either of their lives; I’m sure some would argue they’re better off not caring about such matters. But part of me knows that there’s an intangible downside to having complete intellectual detachment from whatever most Americans consider to be common knowledge.
It’s not just that someone who hasn’t seen Star Wars won’t appreciate Kevin Smith films or that any person who doesn’t know about the Beatles won’t appreciate the Apples in Stereo; those connections are obvious (and usually meaningless). What’s less clear — and much more important — is the degree to which all of culture is imperceptibly defined by whichever of its entities happens to be the most popular at any given time.