Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Decreasing Readership among the Corn-Fed

by Larry Mongoss, guest blogger

I have to admit that I often fall asleep reading. Sometimes it is intentional, reading can be a lovely way to wind a day down, but sometimes it just happens. Ursula K. Le Guin, in her recent Harpers article “Staying Awake,” condemns the publishing industry for having lost sight of the business they are in, as well as for being stupid.

Le Guin’s main thrust is that the perceived demise of reading is probably overblown, and probably more due to changes in measures of success than reading habits. She likens the mindset of publishers to corn producers trying to find ways to keep increasing demand. She never got to ethanol, but suggested that much of the heavy processing of food done today was driven by a need to keep growing the corn industry.

She had me really hooked at that point, and I wanted to know what the analog had been, or was going to be, for books. Pigs eat corn so selling pork instead of corn requires more production to fill a table. Does something like this happen with books? Can you publish books that have to be read and digested in order to write more refined books that can be presented to the final consumer? Or better yet can we make reading lots of books a requirement for writing scripts for TV shows and ads so that we can deliver an even more refined product?

Clearly there is a fallacy in my reasoning here, which is probably why Le Guin did not pursue the analogy as entertaining as it might have been. Books are not really like corn. A book can be fed to a writer, and still be available to a reader. She notes that “Books are social vectors,” and it is not really their mass production but rather their ability to maintain and transmit information that is valuable. And that fundamentally is the reason she feels the publishing industry is not doing what it should. For big publishers “a ‘good book’ means a high gross and a ‘good writer’ is one who’s next book can be guaranteed to sell better than the last one.”

Books, movies, drugs – it is all the same everyone is after the blockbusters, ignoring the steady income available from the solid performers. There are actually lots of social reasons for this, which Le Guin does not go into in detail, but she is right to point out that they probably make little business sense.

Her general conclusion is that the publishing industry is both hindering our literacy, and making our literacy look worse that it is. That it has always been the case that lots of people don’t read, and that for all the machinations of publishers, “writers and readers, even as they suffer from it, regard it with amused contempt.”

Though I don’t really disagree with her conclusions, I am not sure that I was that swayed by her arguments. I would have found it much more persuasive if she had been able to back up her statements with more historical statistics. Then again, had she done so I probably would have fallen asleep. #

Related articles:

Goodbye to All That - The decline of the coverage of books isn’t new, benign, or necessary

Staying Awake - Notes on the alleged decline of reading

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