Messy musings on the magic of books and how they’re (unfortunately) tied to capitalism
Books mean everything to me. And no, this is not hyperbole. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t reading, when I didn’t have piles of library books waiting to be read at home, tucked on the bottom shelf of my bookcase for two weeks, before being replaced with new adventures. My bookcases now are overflowing, books crammed into any little space available. I dream of having an entire room full of bookshelves which in turn are full of books, complete with a rolling ladder. I dream of having a big, comfy chair in my library, where my future children can come pile up with me after pulling books from the shelves, and we’ll read together well into the night. Because how could anyone exist without books? How could anyone not enjoy books?
Imagine my surprise, then, when my fiancé looked me in the eyes and said, “I don’t like books.” To which I responded, eyes wide, mouth hanging open, “What?” Spittle may have flown, curse words might have fluttered through my brain, but all he did was shrug and say, “I haven’t read a book in a long time.” I almost died. (Okay, that might be hyperbole.) But how could I, of all people, be marrying someone who doesn’t like books? How could I have picked a spouse for me, a writer, who doesn’t even read? Reading Le Guin’s words calmed my troubled, writerly soul a little bit: “It’s just that not all that many people ever did read them [books]. Why should we think everybody ought to now?” (34). So this isn’t a brand new problem. A lot of people don’t read. I have friends who don’t read, who haven’t read a book in years. But, thinking about this brings up a new problem: what’s the point of being a writer if lots of people don’t actually read? Is there anybody left who will read what I write?
Beyond the problem of finding devout readers, is the problem of the book industry itself. Capitalism is the rule. The end-all of everything is to make money. And though this is definitely true, I see advice all over telling writers and would-be-published-authors to “Write what you want, what you want to read. Don’t try to please the market.” Which, thinking about now, is interesting. Trying to hop onto the trends still doesn’t guarantee you’ll get published. Besides, by the time you finish your manuscript, creepy, sparkly vampires are out and teenagers saving their dystopian world is in. In other words, your manuscript will ultimately end up at the whim of “Will this make me money right now?” As Le Guin puts it, “Their interest in books is self-interest, the profit that can be made out of them…” (35). It’s not even about if your manuscript is necessarily good, but if it will sell well. It’s not about quality, it’s about profitability. So write whatever you want and hope someone can turn it into a long, drawn-out series to rake in heaps and heaps of money. To revise that advice from the beginning of this paragraph: “Write what you want as long as you can also sell it.”
But if publishers are more concerned with how well they can sell your book, why even try? And how are you supposed to know if what you’re writing is profitable enough for the publishers? I’m back to feeling rather discouraged again. Writing is not about the money. I don’t write for the money. Believe you me, I am not in this for the money. Writing, like painting or sculpting, is an art. Books are bound pages of art. Le Guin agrees and adds what this means for art in terms of capitalism: “…inevitably some of what publishers publish is, or is partly, literature—art. And the relationship of art to capitalism is, to put it mildly, vexed… Their definitions of what profiteth a man are too different” (38). Capitalism puts its emphasis on money. A book is only good, then, if it makes a lot of money.
But that is not what I say a book is good for. I say a book is good for entertainment, for spending time in a new, undiscovered world with characters unlike, and too much like, yourself. Books are good for growing empathy, for seeing the inner lives of other people, other characters. They make you realize that people are much more complex than they appear. Books are good for teaching you new ways to think about things. Books can help you see the magic in everyday life, because books themselves are magic. Somewhere in between those 300 pages is a world, rich with people and emotions and places that feel real, that make you feel happiness, sadness, confusion, shock and surprise, that make you think differently, maybe even make you feel that you’re not so alone after all. I don’t know about you, but that seems pretty magical to me.
But in order to experience all those things, in order to experience the magic of books, the reader has to be an active participant. As Le Guin so eloquently explains, “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” (37). Only by giving a book your full attention, your mind, your heart, only by fully participating in and with it, will you be able to experience it in all its magic. And because a book is so involved, “No wonder not everybody is up to it” (37). If you don’t give a book the attention and alertness it requires, the characters and emotions and worlds will stay words, flat and colorless on the page.
But books are still magic. They can still be magical for those who commit to reading them, who become wholly engaged, who let themselves become a part of the book itself. And that is why I write. Forget about the money and what is popular. Forget that there are still a lot of people who don’t read. There are still some who do, who also believe in the magic of books, in the magic of words. I write for them. I want to give them characters they love and hate, and love to hate. I want them to see that villains, that antagonists, are still people too, with feelings and responsibilities and loved ones. I want to show them worlds that are complex and unfair, just like ours. Maybe then, as they find these injustices in my writing, they’ll be able to close the book and find the ones that are all around us too. I want them to experience these characters and worlds that are so different from theirs and realize that they love them. That just because they, the characters, are different, doesn’t mean they don’t deserve compassion and attention. That just because a character experiences something they never have, doesn’t make that experience invalid.
Books are a way to shape minds to think in new ways, to encourage readers to grow, to grow beyond themselves and their own circumstances. Most of all, I want my reader to think. Even if they forget the plot of my story, I hope they’ll still remember that my book made them think, and that they’ll then be able to look at the world around them and think about it too. If I can do that, even just for one person, I’ll feel like I’ve made it as a writer.
Maybe not everyone will read my books, but so what? There will still be people who do. And maybe my own children won’t be super excited to read every night. But I’ll still sit them down and share with them. Share our world with them, share other worlds with them, so that they can learn to think for themselves and think about the world around them. I did, after all, get my fiancé to read a book I wrote. He read it in one afternoon and proudly proclaimed to me, “I did it! I finished it!” Grinning, I asked him, “What was your favorite part?” He shrugged and told me, “I don’t know. But I found you all over in it. In things you and your characters say, think, and believe.” And for me, who wants to expose my readers to new thoughts and ideas, to give them parts of me to think about, hearing that was better than highlighting any part of the plot.
Le Guin, Ursula K. “Staying Awake: Notes on the alleged decline of reading.” Harper’s Magazine, February 2008. PDF.