"books are social vectors" 02.01.2008, 4:48 PM
posted by ben vershbow
Some choice quotes from Ursula K. Le Guin's terrific new Harper's essay, "Staying Awake: Notes on the alleged decline of reading" (unfortunately behind pay wall):
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.
...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. How-to books and the like have some market predictability. 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.
Anton on February 4, 2008 5:51 AM:
As someone without a subscription to Harper's, I found Googling "Notes on the alleged decline of reading" filetype:pdf to be helpful.
Steven Williams on February 10, 2008 12:42 PM:
I think one way of looking at Le Guin's comments is the way a serious collector should look at collecting as an investment. I think it is generally understood that if a person collects with only investment in mind, the end result is usually no more valuable in the end plus the depth of satisfaction, knowledge, and appreciation never develops like it does for a serious collector.
Also, publishing should not necessarily be seen as a highly profitable business. I know bestseller successes in the past tend to fuel the business/accounting approach to publishing, but the reality is that it will always remain a gamble.
I think it is also important to point out that, as with most surveys, there is more to interpreting the results of any survey than reading the numbers. At the Harper's site there is a more detailed description of the reader's survey pointing out that the question is about "having read a work of literature that year." I am a reasonably consistent reader, usually in the process of reading several books at a time. Yet only very rarely could any of the books I read be described as literature in the conventional sense. I primarily read non-fiction. It is a personal preference but there is also no doubt in my mind that good non-fiction has just as much insight as fiction.
As an asside, I also find myself fairly regularly heading to the library to look for a copy of Harper's for an interesting article I have heard about.