In “Staying Awake: Notes on the Alleged Decline of Reading,” Ursula K. Le Guin questions the assumption that books are on the way out. Historically, she points out, the majority of people have not been readers. But it is readers who, also historically, have had both economic and social power. “Literacy was not only the front door to any kind of individual economic and class advancement; it was an important social activity,” she writes.

She goes on to lament the damage corporate publishers are doing by focusing on formulaic best-sellers. She contrasts reading with electronic entertainment:

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 into it.”

Read the article in the February issue of Harper’s Magazine, beginning on page 33, at the Parham Campus Library.

2 thoughts on “Ursula K. Le Guin on the Alleged Decline of Reading

  1. I wonder whether LeGuin would agree that publishers have always put out primarily formulaic bestsellers, whether pornography, dime westerns or pulp mysteries. The percentage of books marketed as “literary” has probably always been pretty small. Maybe a depressing fact if you realize that all those formulaic best-sellers are included in statistic that show most Americans read approximately one book a year, if that. –Pete

  2. Oh, sure, I believe Le Guin would quickly acknowledge that formulaic bestsellers have always been available. My introduction to her writing was with her Earthsea Trilogy, a fantasy for young readers. I think her point is that these sorts of books are overwhelming the market, that publishers are spending so much of their budgets on established best-selling authors that it is more difficult for new writers to get a foot in the door. But her main point is that readers have always been in the minority, not the majority, and that books have endured and will continue to do so in spite of all the electronic competition.

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