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.