A Letter from America
LAST week, Dr Howard Bennett, of the George Washington University Medical Centre in Washington DC, diagnosed one of those half-serious maladies of modern living, like Frisbee finger or Nintendinitis. In a whimsical letter to the influential New England Journal of Medicine, he gave it a name: the Hogwarts headache.
This alliterative affliction is named after the wizardry school in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and is suffered by children embarking on marathon reading sessions of the 870-page Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Reports of Hogwarts headaches circulated wildly on the internet, and no doubt prompted some parents, already worried about children lugging around 30lb backpacks, to consider limiting their reading material.
In a letter to the latest issue of the journal, Dr Bennett says he was alerted to the problem by a succession of children who visited his surgery shortly after the book was released in June.
The patients, aged between eight and ten, had been brought in because of lingering headaches. Dr Bennett quickly ruled out a more serious cause and found that all the children had been reading Rowling’s book for hours at a time. "The kids would be reading six, eight hours a day," said Dr Bennett. "It’s a big book."
One of his patients, eight-year-old Lillie Lainoff, says her headaches started the day she got the book, the fifth in the series. "I would read for a time and I would feel a pain in my head and it would keep going and going and it would keep getting worse," she said.
All the symptoms went away within three days of finishing the book. The children are said to have taken painkillers rather than follow the doctor’s recommendation of taking a break from reading.
Dr Bennett’s letter is accompanied by a graph showing "Page and Weight Inflation in the Harry Potter Series", with the latest volume tipping the scales at almost 3lb. But the physical mass of the book may be less relevant than its content.
Dr Bennett’s letter fails to mention that The Order of the Phoenix is basically a book about headaches. As any child will tell you, Harry Potter has a psychic connection with the evil Lord Voldemort, an extrasensory link that gives Harry a searing migraine any time the two are close to each other, or whenever Voldemort feels a particularly strong emotion. As a result Harry spends much of the book needing an aspirin.
It’s no wonder these young readers have headaches: their hero gets them all the time. Human beings often share physical conditions without any visible contagion. The Couvade syndrome, for example, is a phenomenon in which the husbands of pregnant women get morning sickness. Through a sort of intimate empathy, we shoulder the condition of our close company - just try yawning in a crowded elevator.
Deep commiseration with a fictional character is nothing new. American readers of Dickens’s serialised novel The Old Curiosity Shop (1840) were so taken with its selfless but ailing heroine, Little Nell, that they swarmed the boats bringing the latest installment of the book from England. "Is Little Nell dead?" they asked, and the country went into mourning when her fate was revealed.
Who knows what ailments Rowling’s next volume will bring? But parents should be happy that their children are willing to drag a 3lb book around. These young readers may be aching, but they are unbowed. They aren’t reading too much - they’re feeling too much, which is the miracle of fiction.
Muggle though he is, Dr Bennett wrote the letter in hopes that doctors might pay more attention to headache complaints, not to criticise the Potter books. "I’m a fan of Rowling’s," he said. "I want kids to keep reading the books, to keep reading books in general."
He went on: "The take-home message for kids is to keep reading. Read at a desk with good lighting and take breaks."
Here’s to the Hogwarts headache. Long may it throb!
• IAN WILLIAMS lives in Brooklyn
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Thursday 20 June 2013
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