The decline in reading: take 27

As something of a complement/contrast to Caleb Crain's disturbing New Yorker feature last month on the supposed demise of reading, Ursula K. LeGuin writes in the February Harper's (subscription required) that she wants "to question the assumption--whether gloomy or faintly gloating--that books are on the way out. I think they're here to stay. It's just that not all that many people ever did read them. Why should we think everybody ought to now?"

Crain's New Yorker story takes the loooong view. Given our neural anatomy and given the history of literacy, it's remarkable that humans read at all. Only in the 19th century-early 20th century could it be said that reading became a 'general' activity. This puts the rise of a video/internet-dependent culture in a different, worrisomely inevitable context.

As you might imagine, Crain's piece has been the talk of publishing the past month. Drawing from the current evidence he cites, Crain has an extremely gloomy take on the future: "More alarming are indications that Americans are losing not just the will to read but even the ability." And "No effort of will is likely to make reading popular again."

LeGuin has a more immediate, inside-the-industry critique, and a familliar one: Much of the current crisis -- if we can call it that -- comes from corporate media taking over the literature-arts publishing houses, which have rarely made substantial profits, and then cranking them up into money machines. When they fail or balk, the industry starts blowing a gasket:

To me, then, one of the most despicable things about corporate publishers and chain booksellers is their assumption that books are inherently worthless. If a title that was supposed to sell a lot doesn't "perform" within a few weeks, it gets its covers torn off -- it is trashed. The corporate mentality recognizes no success that is not immediate....

I keep hoping the corporations will wake up and realize that publishing is not, in fact, a normal business with a nice healthy relationship to capitalism. Elements of publishing are, or can be forced to be, successfully capitalistic: the textbook industry is all too clear a proof of that.... But inevitably some of what publishers publish is, or is partly, literature -- art. And the relationship of art to capitalism is, to put it mildly, vexed. It has not been a happy marriage ....

So why don't the corporations drop the literary publishing houses, or at least the literary departments of the publishers they bought, with amused contempt, as unprofitable? Why don't they let them go back to muddling along making just enough, in a good year, to pay binders and editors, modest advances and crummy royalties, while plowing most of the profits back into taking chances on new writers?

January 17, 2008 2:17 PM |



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This page contains a single entry by book/daddy published on January 17, 2008 2:17 PM.

Late to the party, as always was the previous entry in this blog.

Vomit, blood and comic indignities: diet book reviewing done right is the next entry in this blog.

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