Strong words about books and readers fling the gauntlet down at publishing's Big Biz
In an essay titled "Staying Awake: Notes on the Alleged Decline of Reading," Portland author Ursula K. Le Guin insists that books are here to stay: "It's just that not all that many people ever did read them."
Those who wring their hands over the dwindling number of readers in the United States might want to turn to the latest issue of Harper's Magazine, where Portland author Ursula K. Le Guin offers a few tart, common-sense words on the so-called reading crisis.
In an essay titled "Staying Awake: Notes on the Alleged Decline of Reading," she insists that books are here to stay: "It's just that not all that many people ever did read them."
Le Guin's nastiest salvos are aimed at publishing executives who "think they can sell books as commodities" and are disappointed if their holdings don't increase "yearly, daily, hourly."
Until the corporate takeover of independent publishing houses, she points out, publishers didn't expect expansion: "They were quite happy if their supply and demand ran parallel, if their books sold steadily, flatly."
"What's in this dismal scene for you, Mr. Corporate Executive?" she wraps up. "Why don't you just get out of it, dump the ungrateful little pikers, and get on with the real business of business, ruling the world?"
Indie publishers, she suggests, would do better on their own, doling out smaller advances and harboring more modest expectations of their industry.
There hasn't been a manifesto like this since Jonathan Franzen's 1996 cri de coeur about the peripheralization of literature in American society (also published in Harper's).
We can only say: Go, Ursula! And also: The book is dead. Long live the book!
Michael Upchurch, Seattle Times book critic
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company