Le Guin on the So-Called Decline of Books

In Harpers, Ursula Le Guin writes about how the end of books will not happen any time soon. She considers how book readers these days are readers by choice, since reading is no longer the activity of requirement, popular entertainment, or status that it used to be:

Even during what I have called the “century of the book,” when it was taken for granted that many people read and enjoyed fiction and poetry, how many people in fact had or could make much time for reading once they were out of school? During those years most Americans worked hard and worked long hours. Weren’t there always many who never read a book at all, and never very many who read a lot of books? We don’t know how many, because we didn’t have polls to worry us about it.


“If people make time to read, it’s because it’s part of their jobs, or other media aren’t readily available, or they aren’t much interested in them—or because they enjoy reading. Lamenting over percentage counts induces a moralizing tone: It is bad that we don’t read; we should read more; we must read more. Concentrating on the drowsy fellow in Dallas, perhaps we forget our own people, the hedonists who read because they want to. Were such people ever in the majority?”

Le Guin’s is concerned for the future of books, but it is not too much of a technological concern. Rather, she observes that much of the trouble for books comes from publishers:

Books are social vectors, but publishers have been slow to see it. They barely even noticed book clubs until Oprah goosed them. But then the stupidity of the contemporary, corporation-owned publishing company is fathomless: they think they can sell books as commodities.


[According to CEO’s] a “good book” means a high gross and a “good writer” is one whose next book can be guaranteed to sell better than the last one. That there are no such writers is of no matter to the corporationeers, who don’t comprehend fiction even if they run their lives by it. Their interest in books is self-interest, the profit that can be made out of them—or occasionally, for the top executives, the Murdochs and other Merdles, the political power they can wield through them; but that is merely self-interest again, personal profit.


As Le Guin’s is saying, the big publishers and book sellers mainly promote and sell mass market, disposable books (whether hard or paper bound) in order to turn quick profits. This reminded me of something I read by writer and programmer, Paul Graham,

I can see the evolution of book publishing in the books on my shelves. Clearly at some point in the 1960s the big publishing houses started to ask: how cheaply can we make books before people refuse to buy them? The answer turned out to be one step short of phonebooks. As long as it isn’t floppy, consumers still perceive it as a book.

Graham’s broader point is that book publishers have come around to the idea that they sell media more than they sell physical objects, but that book publishers cannot sell books the same way movie and music studios sell their content.

The book, regardless of its form, is consumed with special care that Le Guin describes beautifully,

But reading is active, an act of attention, of absorbed alertness—not all that different from hunting, in fact, or from gathering. In its silence, a book is a challenge: it can’t lull you with surging music or deafen you with screeching laugh tracks or fire gunshots in your living room; you have to listen to it in your head. A book won’t move your eyes for you the way images on a screen do. It won’t move your mind unless you give it your mind, or your heart unless you put your heart in it. It won’t do the work for you. To read a story well is to follow it, to act it, to feel it, to become it—everything short of writing it, in fact. Reading is not “interactive” with a set of rules or options, as games are; reading is actual collaboration with the writer’s mind. No wonder not everybody is up to it.


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