Adults should not toady to the taste of tots

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Yesterday I nudged the new 766-page Harry Potter out of someone's hands. That's three in four days. Plus two near misses. A near miss being when they spill the book but catch it before it hits the ground. None of these cultural interventions, by the by, involved a child. Call me self-righteous, but I would not nudge any book out of the hands of any person below the age of consent.

Of course, if a child dropped its own Harry Potter, from a pram or high chair, or while knifing another child to the words of Eminem - "You wacker than the motherfucker you bit your style from" - I would not bend to pick it up. I might even surreptitiously kick it further from its owner. The Harry Potter foot-nudge. Being cruel in order to be kind. But that's still different, I think, from actually being the removing agent.

Over 16, though, I consider fair game. And, in fact, of my three successful nudges, two were over 21 and therefore looking for trouble. They had that beatific yet defiant air - wonderment worn with belligerence - of adult Potterers the world over. "Yes, I am still honouring the child in myself, so what are you going to do about it?"

To which there is only one reasonable response. Not a knock or a blow or a karate kick. I abhor violence. Just an accidental collision, a stumble, say, or an inadvertent twitch of the arm, as though you've just been stung by something venomous. "Oops, so sorry!" - as you see the Harry Potter go fluttering on to the railway line or, even better, into the Thames.

Nothing personal. I have no bone to pick with the author of Harry Potter. She just wrote the books. A blameless activity. Most of what goes wrong with books goes wrong at the reader's end. Blame the reader, I say. Blame the motherfuckin' reader every time.

I am well versed in the arguments for Harry Potter. Anything to get the illiterate little criminals we call our children off the internet and crack, and on to books. Start them on Potter and the proper stuff will follow. The other week I switched on Newsnight just as it was finishing reporting new research showing that boys who read Harry Potter are not in fact proceeding directly to The Golden Bowl. Surprise, surprise. How many times do I have to say it: if you want them to read the The Golden Bowl, you start them on Washington Square.

There is no principle of progress intrinsic to the act of reading itself. Reading is like eating: it might be good for you, it might not, depending on how or what you swallow. The idea that all roads lead from crap to quality, once you turn a page, is no more tenable than arguing that McDonald's is the first step up the ladder to Le Manoir Aux Quat' Saisons. Mere daydreaming, most reading is most of the time, mere mental indolence of the wishing it were you and you were there sort. Mere emotional obedience. Engagement with a book is something else. Talk to me of reading as a fretful business, full of thought and pain, all pauses and altercations with the author, and I'm with you. And when I next see someone over the age of 21 scratching his or her head over Harry Potter and taking notes, I will revise my opinion.

Meanwhile, the literary world is back in lickspittle mode, bewitched by riches and terrified of looking its age. A few years ago, when a new Hannibal Lecter novel appeared, every critic in town hailed it as a masterwork. Forget your "literary" literature, get a load of this! I tried it on their recommendation. A novel for moral infants. But quality wasn't the point. The point was fouling one's own nest. We need to do this, periodically, in my profession. We need to sick up on ourselves. To love everyone's productions but our own. We lack self-respect.

So here we go again, with Seamus Heaney enthusing over Eminem's "verbal energy" - a quality you might just as well admire in Silvio Berlusconi - and Peter Kemp, chief fiction reviewer of the Sunday Times, capitulating to Harry Potter two pages front of section, in the very space usually reserved for Margaret Atwood.

Whether Peter Kemp has young children of his own, I do not know, but it is no excuse. Of this he must be aware himself, for hidden in all the Harry Potter fan talk, swapping favourite characters and the like, is a semblance of literary criticism. As witness, for example, the judgement that Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix "seethes with turbulence". My ears prick. I've heard what a rollicking good yarner Rowling is, how once you pick her up you can't put her down blah blah; but now I am being asked to attend to the writing. Rowling, Kemp would have us believe, writes prose, else where would the "seething" have a chance to seethe.

So does he convince us of his claim? Ah, reader, if you have a spark of humanity in you, stop reading now. To the following poverty, in his eagerness to please, is our serious fiction reviewer reduced: "passages conveying Harry's state of mind" he writes, and may the Lord forgive my quoting this, "are livid with such words as 'angry', 'rage', and 'furious'."

"Such" words, note, making us wonder what other livid language lies in wait. "Annoyance"? "Temper"? "Tantrum" even? The mind seethes, imagining such verbal turbulence.

Upon those who don't respond to this inertia of vocabulary and imagination as they should, Peter Kemp wishes punishment with Frog Spawn Soap, Hiccough Sweets and Nose-Biting Teacups - these from the rich store of JK Rowling's fancy. Whimsy, Mr Kemp. The most feeble whimsicality, which you would not tolerate in your day job.

O shame, where is thy blush? There are many things to mortify us in these drossy times, but the spectacle of grown men toadying to the taste of tots is the most mortifying of them all.

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