Notes and news

Today is one of those days that should have been excellent but wasn’t — my semester hasn’t begun yet, so though I still have work to do preparing syllabi and such, I’m not terribly busy. What do I have to complain about, right? Except I could never rouse myself to do much today and so had the sense that I was wasting time but didn’t have the energy to do anything about it. I’ve been enjoying my books but even they weren’t satisfying me. The weather is lousy too — wet and cold. But the worst thing is that poor Muttboy hurt himself out in the woods this afternoon; Hobgoblin noticed him walking slowly but didn’t think much of it until they were both home a couple hours later and Muttboy started whining. When he tried to stand up, it was obvious that it hurt and he would yelp now and then. A suffering dog is a really sad thing, isn’t it? Hobgoblin called the vet who basically said to give Muttboy two aspirin and call her in the morning — good advice, I’m sure, but not terribly comforting. Now he’s curled up on the couch sleeping.

But I don’t want this post to be one long whine, so I’ll mention a few things besides my troubles. For one, Litlove’s new book, The Best of Tales from the Reading Room arrived in the mail today, and what a nice looking book it is! It’s got a picture of Litlove and some comments from blog readers on the back and an introduction that tells the story of how she got into blogging. The book itself is made up of many of her best posts — ones on Rilke, Julian Barnes, Virginia Woolf and many other authors and topics, and some more personal posts as well.

And one more thing about Litlove — her new edition of The Best of New Writing on the Web is up, so go check it out!

In other news — Harper’s has an essay by Ursula Le Guin called “Staying Awake: Notes on the alleged decline of reading,” unfortunately not available online. It’s interesting, though, so if you are in a library or bookstore and see it, it might be worth a glance. In the article she says some very sensible things, in particular her point that we tend to forget that for most of history people didn’t read all that much:

… I also want to question the assumption — whether gloomy or faintly gloating — 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?

For most of human history, most people could not read at all. Literacy was not only a demarcator between the powerful and the powerless; it was power itself. Pleasure was not an issue.

Of course, it’s a shame that many people choose not to read today, but I think the point is right that we tend to think that reading is in a crisis that has never existed before. While Le Guin has no kind words for those who choose not to read, the real villain of her essay is the publishing industry. She lambastes it for seeking never-ending growth in profits in an industry that just can’t sustain it:

To me, then, one of the most despicable things about corporate publishers and chain booksellers is their assumption that books are inherently worthless. If a title that was supposed to sell a lot doesn’t “perform” within a few weeks, it gets its covers torn off — it is trashed. The corporate mentality recognizes no success that is not immediate. This week’s blockbuster must eclipse last week’s, as if there weren’t room for more than one book at a time. Hence the crass stupidity of most publishers (and, again, chain booksellers) in handling backlists….

But capitalists count weeks, not years. To get big quick money, the publisher must risk a multimillion-dollar advance on a hot author who’s supposed to provide this week’s bestseller. These millions — often a dead loss — come out of funds that used to go to pay normal advances to reliable midlist authors and the royalties on older books that kept selling. Many midlist authors have been dropped, many reliably selling books remaindered, in order to feed Moloch. Is that any way to run a business?

Finally, I’ve begun looking into Franco Moretti’s The Novel: History, Geography, and Culture and have found much to learn. I’ll post more on that later.

12 Comments

Filed under Books, Life

12 responses to “Notes and news

  1. SFP

    Poor Muttboy. I hope the aspirin help.

  2. I’m annoyed that the Harper’s article isn’t available online (magazine publishers are as bad as book publishers). Thanks for posting some of it here (and let’s hope you don’t get sued for copyright infringement). I couldn’t agree more with Le Guin.

  3. Yaeli

    Oh, your poor wee dog, I hope he feels better already.

    As for Le Guin – sadly it *is* a way to run a business, it’s just a terrible way to disseminate culture because it relies entirely on appealing to the lowest common denominator. On the other hand, chain bookstores including Amazon do offer access to books like never before – having moved to Israel from London the one thing I miss are bookstores – it’s terribly hard to get English books here (apart from bestsellers, natch) without paying Amazon’s extortionate import costs. And the point Le Guin makes about reading never being a terribly popular or available pastime (or even a pastime as such!) is terribly thought-provoking. Although I wish more and better books were published than just pulpy bestsellers, we do live in an age where so much is available to us – and I include blogs like yours in this category, too.

  4. Gute Besserung to Muttboy!

    I also have Litlove’s book, and it’s given me such a thrill to hold it, reread and rediscover the posts I’ve loved over the last two years.

  5. Isn’t the Le Guin essay great? I like too how she brings up how reading is also a social act and that’s why bestsellers happen. I had never thought of it that way before. And I like how she points fingers at the publishing industry.

    So sorry about Muttboy. I hope he is feeling better today!

  6. verbivore

    I would love to get a hold of that article, will have a peek at the library this week. I agree with her point that the publishing industry does need a paradigm shift – literature for profit as a model doesn’t seem like the way to go.

    I do hope Muttboy is okay, when my dog gets hurt (which she does often because she’s huge and terribly clumsy) I am a wreck until she feels better.

  7. Oh no – poor Muttboy. How is he today?
    I might be going to the bookstore today so I’ll check out the Harper’s article.

  8. Thank you for your kind words, Dorothy, and for the helpful mention of the new blog! The Le Guin article sounds tremendously sane. I looked into this question of decline in reading last summer and my impression is that reading boomed in the thirties and forties when cheap paperbacks and widespread education meant that lots of people suddenly had access to books, and there was no television to compete. It’s doubtful that the numbers of people reading have really declined so very much from this point, but people can still remember the boom, whilst conveniently forgetting why it should have happened.

    And poor Muttboy. There is nothing sadder to look at than a suffering animal. I do hope he is feeling better now.

  9. LK

    Rooting for Muttboy! May he have a speedy recovery.

  10. SFP — thank you; yes, the aspirin did help and Muttboy is feeling much better today.

    Emily — I’m annoyed too; if I liked a magazine, I’d subscribe even if it were available online because I prefer to read on paper whenever I can.

    Yaeli — thank you! And that’s a good point about chain bookstores — they do have some important functions. I remember when I was living in the Bronx, people wanted a Barnes and Noble to come in because there were no bookstores, period, so a chain would be better than nothing.

    Charlotte — vielen dank! It’s fun to be able to hold a blog in one’s hands, isn’t it?

    Stefanie — yes, and there were lots of good points I didn’t bring up — including the comparison to Michael Pollan’s point about corn — that businesses find a way a creating a demand for a product even if it’s bad for us.

    Verbivore — yes, it so hard to deal with pets’ suffering! There’s something about not being able to communicate with them using language that makes it so difficult.

    Iliana — I hope you had fun at the bookstore! :) I’m sure you did …

    Litlove — yes, good point; Le Guin talks about a “golden age” of reading, from roughly 1850-1950, and makes a similar point that although there may be decline, we’re not looking at it from a broad-enough perspective.

    LK — thank you! He’s feeling much better, thank goodness.

  11. Thanks for sharing the LeGuin article, I was really interested in it and intend to look it up when I next visit the library (was just there today! so it will be awhile). Does her article mention at all that headline that was in the news awhile back stating that 1 in 4 Americans never read a book last year?

  12. I’ll have to find this issue of Harpers in the library–that sounds like an interesting article. I do think publishers stake a lot on just a few books being really big bestsellers. It’s sort of sad for all the rest of the worthy reads that may not appeal to the masses! I see above that Muttboy’s doing better–glad to hear it! And isn’t it fun getting to see Litlove in the photo on her book? It’s all very nicely done!

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