January 11, 2008KR BlogReading

Endangered Species? Ursula K. Le Guin and the Fate of Reading

I grew up in the foothills of the Adirondacks, in a small working-class mill town from which, as a child, I feared I’d never leave. One such escape–though it was more than that–was reading. Going on to college and graduate school, becoming a scholar and a poet was a source of pride and bewilderment to my parents. How did this happen, they wondered. Was their son, in fact, a changeling? It all makes perfect sense to me. I was born into a family of readers. The books varied: spy novels, science-fiction, fantasy, westerns, romance novels. As a family, we read voraciously; on family trips my sister and I packed up books for the backseat while my parents waged a subtle battle over who would drive and who would read. My first entry into literature was through myth. I don’t know how I graduated from board books and Nate the Great and his ever shrinking stack of pancakes, but there is (happily) no accounting for taste. From myth I wandered into science-fiction and fantasy before becoming enchanted by the many forms of literary poetry and prose.

So when Ursula K. Le Guin speaks, I listen. This month in Harper’s, the author of some of the greatest, not to mention foundational works of fantasy and science-fiction (from the Earthsea novels to The Left Hand of Darkness) addressing anxieties about the disappearance of reading, the demise of which, she claims, has either been exaggerated or, more accurately, misunderstood.

Le Guin begins with the analogy from my title–the fear that reading and the culture of the book is, like so many species under the reign of what we might laughably call human stewardship (with some help from global warming), endangered. Citing recent studies, polls, and opinions by the NEA (responses to which were published in a forum by the ALSC), the Associated Press, and The New York Times, Le Guin distinguishes herself from the pack by questioning the lyrical (dare we say smugly pleased) eulogies for the death of reading. As she puts it, “I also want to question the assumption–whether gloomy or faintly pleased–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?”

Le Guin explores not just the literary aspects of reading but also the cultural aspects. The thirst for bestsellers, for example, reveals “is not a literary need. It is a social need. We want books everybody is reading (and nobody finishes) so we can talk about them.” The greatest misconceptions about reading, Le Guin argues, are those held by the publishing industry, which looks for both reliability and growth from reading patterns, which remain fluid and unpredictable. In a dazzling analogy, Le Guin compares the way in which publishers seek to emulate the model of agircultural capitalism, which successfully creates unreasonable and unnecessary demand for corn–by feeding it to livestock (whether it’s good for them or not), by packing foods with corn syrup (whether they need them or not), etc. The end result? More demand, better sales. Can this work with books? Not really, Le Guin argues. With few exceptions, standardization is bound to fail. Formula-based writing only holds up for so long, and the exhaustion of a given formula is wholly unpredictable.

Le Guin’s prose is dazzling, her insights fierce. I suppose I’m most persuaded by her praise of the interactivity of reading and the longevity of the peculiar and efficient technology known as the book. It seems to me that the apocalyptic tone of much recent popular writing (dare we say lamentation) perhaps misunderstands the current shift in technology. Perhaps the most interesting thing Le Guin says is that for all the popularity of the internet, it has yet to produce its own aesthetic forms (as opposed to merely making available images, text, audio, and video of other aesthetic forms.

We may never come to a consensus on the fate of reading, the role of education in that fate of reading, or the ramifications of technological change we experience on a daily basis. Perhaps, though, for one afternoon we might put away the gloomy forecasts and pick up The Wizard of Earthsea or The Left Hand of Darkness. More nourishing than GMO corn, more lasting than a hovering electron, these are works here to stay and in book form no less, that most square of technologies.