Gregory Maguire, NCBLA Board Member,
Recommends This Provocative Essay by Ursuline Le Guin
in Harper's February Issue!
Staying Awake. Notes on the Alleged Decline of Reading
by Ursula K. Le Guin
If people make time to read, it's because it's part of their jobs, or other media
aren't readily available, or they aren't much interested in them‹or because they enjoy
reading. Lamenting over percentage counts induces a moralizing tone: It is bad that we
don't read; we should read more; we must read more. Concentrating on the drowsy
fellow in Dallas, perhaps we forget our own people, the hedonists who read because
they want to. Were such people ever in the majority?
I like knowing that a hard-bitten Wyoming cowboy carried a copy of Ivanhoe in
his saddlebag for thirty years, and that the mill girls of New England had Browning
Societies. There are readers like that still. Our schools are no longer serving them
(or anybody else) well, on the whole; yet some kids come out of even the worst schools
clutching a book to their heart.
Of course books are now only one of the "entertainment media," but when it
comes to delivering actual pleasure, they're not a minor one. Look at the
competition. Governmental hostility was emasculating public radio while Congress
allowed a few corporations to buy out and debase private radio stations. Television has
steadily lowered its standards of what is entertaining until most programs are either
brain-numbing or actively nasty. Hollywood remakes remakes and tries to gross out,
with an occasional breakthrough that reminds us what a movie can be when undertaken
as art. And the Internet offers everything to everybody: but perhaps because of that
all-inclusiveness there is curiously little aesthetic satisfaction to be got from Web-surfing.
You can look at pictures or listen to music or read a poem or a book on your computer,
but these artifacts are made accessible by the Web, not created by it and not intrinsic to it.
Perhaps blogging is an effort to bring creativity to networking, and perhaps blogs will develop
aesthetic form, but they certainly haven't done it yet.
Besides, readers aren't viewers; they recognize their pleasure as different from that of
being entertained. Once you've pressed the on button, the TV goes on, and on, and on,
and all you have to do is sit and stare. But reading is active, an act of attention, of absorbed
alertness‹not all that different from hunting, in fact, or from gathering. 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 in it. It won't do the work for you.
To read a story well is to follow it, to act it, to feel it, to become it everything short of
writing it, in fact. Reading is not "interactive" with a set of rules or options, as games are;
reading is actual collaboration with the writer's mind. No wonder not everybody is up to it.
To access the full article online, go to: http://harpers.org/archive/2008/02/0081907
For a blog response by Scott Horton, got to: http://www.harpers.org/archive/2008/01/hbc-90002193