Mugger: Harper's Bizarre

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Like many people, I’m initially resistant to changes in routine. So, for example, in 1985 when my weekly newspaper in Baltimore switched over from typewriters to early-model computers, it was three months before I abandoned an old Olivetti. Similarly, I didn’t start using ATMs until moving to New York in 1987, was one of the last of my friends to buy a VCR and was completely pissed off by the transformation from vinyl to CDs. (That vinyl has returned as a boutique business, capturing part of the youth market, including my sons, is a weird irony.)

Nevertheless, an exceedingly strange essay in the current issue of Harper’s, which bemoans and belabors the supposed tragedy of independent book publishers and bookstores being swallowed by conglomerates, resulting in the author’s highbrow opinion of the continuing dumbing down of American culture, is worthy of comment for two reasons. One, despite a circulation of approximately 210,000, hardly anyone reads this left-of-center monthly anymore, a predicament that isn’t helped by its antiquated website that still requires a print subscription to gain access to all articles.

More significantly—at least for the sake of current argument and not Harper’s rush into irrelevance and further financial misfortune—is that the author, 78-year-old novelist and poet Ursula K. Le Guin, presents her case in such an elitist and condescending tone that I’m not sure even The New York Times would consider it fit to print.
It’s a shame since Le Guin does make at least one point, on the subject of the “alleged decline of reading,” that isn’t boilerplate and is rarely mentioned in other articles on the same subject. She cites polls from the Associated Press and National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) that found fewer adult Americans read even one book a year as opposed to one, two or three decades ago, leading the NEA to conclude that “non-readers do less well in the job market and are less useful citizens in general.” Le Guin, predicting that “books are here to stay”—which, one hopes is true, but who knows—then writes, “It’s just that not all that many people ever did read them. Why should we think everybody ought to now?” (She also takes a well-deserved swipe at people who shout “banalities into a cell phone as they ran their car into your car.”)

However, she then contradicts that valid opinion, many times over, in the course of her essay. Let’s put aside her jeremiad against “moneymaking entities controlled by obscenely rich executives and their anonymous accountants” who’ve despoiled the book industry and try to fathom her crazy-quilt line of thought. Addressing what some might consider the less than ambitious reading requirements of students today, Le Guin says that in 1890 “the level of literacy and general cultural knowledge expected of a 10-year-old [was] rather awesome.” That’s undoubtedly true for the children of affluent families who attended rigorous public or private schools. Yet surely Le Guin realizes that a century ago, before child labor laws were enacted, long before segregation was abolished and before family farms and businesses gave way to larger concerns, a high school or college diploma eluded a large percentage of the population.

She advances this faulty premise by saying that a long time ago reading was a “social bond,” the topic of conversation among friends and acquaintances—fair enough, at least in some circles—so much so that “strangers on the train or coworkers on the job in 1841 could talk perfectly unaffectedly” about popular fiction or “enjoy a reference” to Tennyson or Shakespeare. Again, it’s doubtful that many “coworkers” were afforded “water cooler” downtime back then, and the idea of strangers gabbing on a train is truly ludicrous since mass transit didn’t begin until decades later, with New York’s first subway lines opening in 1904.

Le Guin, who claims the high point of reading in America was from 1850-1950, “the century of the book,” acknowledges the lack of entertainment competition before electronics boomed, and then, not surprisingly, slams everything but the book. Indulging in a fit of selective nostalgia, she writes that “television has steadily lowered its standards” and “Hollywood remakes remakes and tries to gross out, with an occasional breakthrough that reminds us what a movie can be when undertaken as art.” Was television on a higher intellectual plane in the 1950s and 1960s? Of course not: for every Twilight Zone or Outer Limits, there was a corresponding trashy game show, sitcom or procedural. I don’t watch reality programming today, but shows like Weeds, BBC’s MI-5, Shark and The Wire certainly aren’t junk.

Similarly, despite the misplaced notion of a golden era of the silver screen, the clunkers from that era outnumbered classics like, say, On The Waterfront or Vertigo, by a margin of about 10 to one. Just like today. There aren’t many films that capture my attention, but thinking back in just the past 18 months or so, I’d say The Prestige, Cinderella Man, The Illusionist, There Will Be Blood, The Departed and The Good Shepherd are outstanding.
The following statement, which might be quaint if not so utterly ridiculous, could only be written by an elderly author. “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 and options, as games are; reading is actual collaboration with the writer’s mind. No wonder not everybody is up to it.”

Ahem. I read a lot of books, both for pleasure and work, and never have the sensation of collaborating with the author’s mind—thank God—or “becom[ing]” part of the story.

An essay such as Le Guin’s wouldn’t be complete without an unfavorable comparison of the U.S. to Europe. Despairing that “we increasingly eat junk and make junk,” Le Guin attempts to speak for all of us by saying that while consuming and buying all this “junk” we wonder why “tomatoes in Europe taste like tomatoes.” Granted, produce in supermarkets is now a year-round instead of seasonal option—thanks, Whole Foods—but the summer tomatoes grown in New Jersey and Long Island taste just like those I’ve been eating all my life.

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