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.