Saturday, February 2, 2008

Reading white noise in America

I've been on a literary kick lately. I've been cutting my way through the National Book Critics Circle's blog, Critical Mass, semi-regularly since discovering it a few months ago. (They have such an awkward name for a literary organization.) What got me over there was a review of a book on book reviewing (yes) written by Gail Pool, Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America (via Bookslut, also a good blog covering parts of the literary world). There's a good essay/review of Pool's book here.

There's also NEA's grim report on reading habits in the USA and Ursula Le Guin's sobering response in Harper's Magazine (subscribers only unfortunately).

The NEA's report seems much more pessimistic than it should be. And I think Le Guin is right in her suspicions about the report's so-called decline in reading. She points out that there have been factors contributing to the current state of reading habits, chief among them is the social aspect. During what she calls the "century of the book" (1850-1950):
Literacy was not only the front door to any kind of individual economic and class advancement; it was an important social activity. The shared experience of books was a genuine bond.
This experience consisted of a private and, more importantly, a public aspect wherein people talked with each other about what they read. Then there's this great quote:
Books are social vectors, but publishers have been slow to see it. They barely even noticed book clubs until Oprah goosed them. But then the stupidity of the contemporary, corporation-owned publishing company is fathomless: they think they can sell books as commodities.
Le Guin notes that until recently (a decade or three?), most major publishing houses and bookstores were happy with what might be called mid-sellers, books that had steady sales over the years while in print, with the occasional bestseller to help finance the mid-sellers and smaller imprints. Having annual flat sales was not seen as an anathema on the industry. Once restrictions on mergers were lightened or disappeared altogether, the major publishing houses and chain bookstores began to be run by profit- and growth-minded executives who did not care about the quality of their stock nor their backlists. (Sadly, there are many parallels here with the music and comic book industries.)

The rest of the essay is great, though I have some problems with some of the comparisons Le Guin makes, especially regarding some of the unique qualities of books over other media.

In any case, this all seems symptomatic of my generation and the ones that follow at my heels: we have to learn how to make decisions about what information we take in and how to process the information before us. Critical thinking skills are probably the most important thing we all need to learn in this and every century.

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