Sunday, January 13, 2008

Ursula Le Guin on Reading

I would have found Ursula Le Guin's essay in the February Harper's more interesting if I didn't agree with every word in it. (No link, print only I guess!) She writes about the alarmist report from the NEA -- "To Read or Not to Read" -- in which they claimed 43% of Americans hadn't read a book all year. In this report one of these Americans was quoted as saying, "I just get sleepy when I read."

And Le Guin just shrugs her shoulders, as I did. So what? I've met lots of good, smart people who don't read. I don't think we book-loving people should waste a minute trying to foist our pleasure onto people who'd rather be doing anything else. And maybe it's just my milieu, but it seems to me that reading is a much more popular pastime than it was in, say, 1982. We had Judy Blume and Leon Uris and Waldenbooks* -- no Amazon, no Oprah, no book clubs, no lit blogs, no Harry Potter. Most of the books I read as a child were written decades before. Perhaps the stats prove me wrong. Anyway, whatever. What are we going to do -- make the books we write and publish more like American Idol?

Le Guin goes on to talk about reading as a social phenomenon. Yes! Best-sellers are read only partly for their entertainment or educational value -- often they're read because everyone else is reading them, and no one wants to be left out. Harry Potter is a good example. A huge part of their success is just the human desire to be part of something fun and social. And publishers just can't predict which books are going to take off in this way.

I won't spoil the whole essay for you. (I just love Harper's. In every issue they have something that risks being obscure, crazy, overlong, or just plain strange. No stories about Irish priests in boats for them!)
* Oh yeah: we also had Ursula LeGuin, who wrote the Earthsea books, perhaps the only fantasy novels I can stand.


moonlight ambulette said...

I have much the same reaction to alarmist statements like this, but as usual you have put it very eloquently.

Also, I am annoyed that Harper's website hides everything between a subscriber-only log-in! Come ON, magazines, just learn to love the internet. Just give in already.

rmellis said...

And worse, even if you are a subscriber, as I am, you can't log on! Or maybe it's just me that can't log on. Perhaps my subscriber number is too ancient.

5 Red Pandas said...

I think you have to register your subscriber number first to log on. If that doesn't work, I'd try to call or something. Then again, I'm all about getting my money's worth- and then some.

aos said...

Also a big fan of the mag in fact I was just about to (am just about to) promote the Ben Marcus story in the latest. I had subscribed for years and then let it lapse because of just one too many essays on baseball. But I am back and maybe for good. One of the clinchers that it was a good decision was reading Happyland.

rmellis said...

Haha, funny about Harper's and baseball. Many years ago they published a story by some guy named Don DeLillo called "Pafko at the Wall," which I refused to read because, arg, it was another dumb thing about baseball!

For a while I had the idea that DeLillo was some nostalgic-Americana type baseball guy. Then I read White Noise.

jrlennon said...

Hey aos, thanks about Happyland!