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Mugger Opens a Can of Whup Ass

On Harper’s and Ursula K. Le Guin

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.

As Russ (Evil RSN member) Smith notes, you can’t read Le Guin’s diatribe online unless you’re willing to put money into Harper’s till, but still, he gives you a good idea of what brand of bullshit she–and Harper’s–is dealing here: “Back in the day, we all read books–the same books–and held salons to discuss our impressions”… which, in my own experience, is absolute bullshit.

None of my running brothers read books when I was a kid; indeed, my “bookish” side was something that was individual, and isolational.

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.

But wait, there’s more!:

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.

To this day, I believe one of the greatest television shows of all time (before it eventually jumped the shark, of course) was Wiseguy.

Back to Mugger:

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.

As the PuppyBlender would say: “Indeed.” Following a torrent of books received at Christmas, I’ve read, since that day, ten of them. While reading any of them, I never once believed anything more than I was hearing (albeit in my head) a story being told that I could respond (“interact”) to the author’s story by hearing it… we were NOT having a conversation.

Verily, I sat back and listened to the tale.

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.

And more and more I read more “filling” material that is produced online than what “chaff” I get when I buy the stuff printed on wood pulp.

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