Monday, April 07, 2008

Eyes Wide Open

My friend Sonya ran into someone reading Ursula Le Guin for her amazing blog, People Reading. I've been interested in reading some of her work because she's a pioneering woman in the otherwise pretty male-centric world of sci-fi. In February's Harper's, Le Guin published a response to the various reports on the decline of reading that have come out recently. (I blogged a little about that in January.)

Le Guin's article, Staying Awake: Notes on the alleged decline of reading is really amazing, and I encourage you to read it at least once! Aside from challenging the idea that there's a decline in reading (she asserts that, historically, hardly anyone read), she blames the publishing industry for focusing on books with quick returns rather than long-term appeal. Le Guin's not trying to convert non-readers, she's harsh on those people who claim they fall asleep the minute they pick up a book - she's writing to us readers who make time for books - who read wide awake. She writes:
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.
Like Michael Moore's solution to our national health care crisis, that health care should not be a for-profit business, Le Guin wishes publishing houses and chain bookstores would change their business models. I agree society would benefit from a lot of industries changing from for-profit models to socialist ones, but how do you convince entire, wealthy, capitalist industry leaders to give up their profit margins? Revolution, I guess... Until then we can relish them being healthily skewered in Harper's.

And I'm going to pick up a copy of Le Guin's 1969 Left Hand of Darkness from my local independent bookseller.


Lyman said...

You want my tax dollars going to books?! Commie!!!

Fascinating article. I predict that the music business (which is about to fold up at any moment) is going to fragment and record labels will become smaller, more diverse, more regional, and more artist-driven. I wonder if the same would happen to books.

Sonya said...

I remember reading Left Hand of Darkness in high was required for an English class and, while I don't remember so much what it was about, I do remember that I really loved it. Maybe I'll reread it, too.