Article — From the February 2008 issue

Staying Awake

Notes on the alleged decline of reading

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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.

Moneymaking entities controlled by obscenely rich executives and their anonymous accountants have acquired most previously independent publishing houses with the notion of making quick profit by selling works of art and information. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that such people get sleepy when they read. Within the corporate whales are many luckless Jonahs who were swallowed alive with their old publishing house—editors and such anachronisms—people who read wide awake. Some of them are so alert they can scent out promising new writers. Some of them have their eyes so wide open they can even proofread. But it doesn’t do them much good. For years now, most editors have had to waste most of their time on an unlevel playing field, fighting Sales and Accounting.

In those departments, beloved by the CEOs, 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.

And not only profit but growth. If there are stockholders, their holdings must increase yearly, daily, hourly. The AP article ascribed “listlessness” and “flat” book sales to the limited opportunity for expansion. But until the corporate takeovers, publishers did not expect expansion; they were quite happy if their supply and demand ran parallel, if their books sold steadily, flatly. How can you make book sales expand endlessly, like the American waistline?

Michael Pollan explains in The Omnivore’s Dilemma how you do it with corn. When you’ve grown enough corn to fill every reasonable demand, you create unreasonable demands—artificial needs. So, having induced the government to declare corn-fed beef to be the standard, you feed corn to cattle, who cannot digest corn, tormenting and poisoning them in the process. And you use the fats and sweets of corn by-products to make an endless array of soft drinks and fast foods, addicting people to a fattening yet inadequate diet in the process. And you can’t stop these processes, because if you did profits might become listless, even flat.

This system has worked only too well for corn, and indeed throughout American agriculture and manufacturing, which is why we increasingly eat junk and make junk while wondering why tomatoes in Europe taste like tomatoes and foreign cars are well engineered.

You can cover Iowa border to border with Yellow Corn #2, but with books you run into problems. Standardization of the product and its production can take you only so far—because there is some intellectual content to even the most brainless book. People will buy interchangeable bestsellers, formula thrillers, romances, mysteries, pop biographies, and hot-topic books up to a point, but their product loyalty is defective. A book has to be read, it takes time, effort—you have to be awake to do it. And so you want some reward. The loyal fans bought Death at One O’Clock and Death at Two O’Clock . . . yet all of a sudden they won’t buy Death at Eleven O’Clock even though it follows exactly the same surefire formula as all the others. The readers got bored. What is a good growth-capitalist publisher to do? Where can he be safe?

He can find some safety in exploiting the social function of literature. That includes the educational, of course—schoolbooks and college texts, favorite prey of corporations—as well as the bestsellers and popular books of fiction and nonfiction that provide a common current topic and a bond among people at work and in book clubs. Beyond that, I think corporations have been foolish to look for safety or reliable growth in publishing.

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?

I like knowing that a hard-bitten Wyoming cowboy carried a copy of Ivanhoe in his saddlebag for thirty years, and that the mill girls of New England had Browning Societies. There are readers like that still. Our schools are no longer serving them (or anybody else) well, on the whole; yet some kids come out of even the worst schools clutching a book to their heart.

Of course books are now only one of the “entertainment media,” but when it comes to delivering actual pleasure, they’re not a minor one. Look at the competition. Governmental hostility was emasculating public radio while Congress allowed a few corporations to buy out and debase private radio stations. Television has steadily lowered its standards of what is entertaining until most programs are either brain-numbing or actively nasty. Hollywood remakes remakes and tries to gross out, with an occasional breakthrough that reminds us what a movie can be when undertaken as art. And the Internet offers everything to everybody: but perhaps because of that all-inclusiveness there is curiously little aesthetic satisfaction to be got from Web-surfing. You can look at pictures or listen to music or read a poem or a book on your computer, but these artifacts are made accessible by the Web, not created by it and not intrinsic to it. Perhaps blogging is an effort to bring creativity to networking, and perhaps blogs will develop aesthetic form, but they certainly haven’t done it yet.

Besides, readers aren’t viewers; they recognize their pleasure as different from that of being entertained. Once you’ve pressed the on button, the TV goes on, and on, and on, and all you have to do is sit and stare. 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.

More from Ursula K. Le Guin:

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