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Conversation: Ursula Le Guin

The Next Chapter of Reading

Ursula Le Guin, Photo by Eileen Gunn Ursula Le Guin, best known for her works of science fiction and fantasy, has been writing and publishing novels, children’s books, poetry and drama for more than four decades. In December, she withdrew her membership from the Authors Guild because she disagreed with the organization’s stance on the author settlement offered by Google in its plan to digitize millions of books. (You can read the Guild’s response here.)

I talked to her today about the state (and future) of reading, her opposition to the terms of the Google Books settlement, and what she’s working on now.

I spoke with her by phone from Portland, Ore.:

A full transcript is after the jump…

Editor’s Note: The NewsHour took at look at the Google Books in December. You can watch that segment here. And you can listen to more conversations in our series, “The Next Chapter of Reading,” including authors Katherine Paterson and Rick Moody.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ursula Le Guin, thanks for talking to us.

URSULA LE GUIN: Thanks for having me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me start big first. There’s so much to talk nowadays about the state of reading, the state of the book, whether books might even be on their way out. What do you think?

URSULA LE GUIN: I think people are going to go on reading since our civilization basically depends on literacy. I don’t know what people mean when they say books are on their way out. It’s one of these, you know, sort of like, “God Is Dead.” I really don’t know what they are talking about.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, the book…the book that we hold in our hand.

URSULA LE GUIN: Why the advent of the e-book would just suddenly destroy the printed book, I don’t understand the thinking there. These technologies have an overlap area, but they also have very different capabilities, right?

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you use an e-book yourself?

URSULA LE GUIN: Uh-unh. I’m waiting for that technology to settle down, to stop being wholly owned by one corporation or another so I can only by somebody’s book, you know and so on. Oh no. I’d love to play with a Kindle, but I don’t even know anybody who owns one.

JEFFREY BROWN: What as a reader yourself and as a writer, what gives you worry — to the extent that you do worry about the readership or about the state of reading — what gives you worry when you look at the landscape?

URSULA LE GUIN: What worries me most is the state of education in the United States. Whatever the technology by which you read, children aren’t being taught to read very well or to read very good stuff. Our schools are so starved and underfunded and over-managed that children are almost thrown to the visible media, television and then this sort of huge rash of intercommunicating all the time. We have traditionally learned most of what we learn from second or third grade on through reading. Nobody’s figured out a better way yet. So if people, you know, howl and whine about oh, nobody’s reading novels anymore and so on, well when were they ever taught how to read fiction? You have to be taught how to read things. It’s not just learning your alphabet. You have to be taught how to read. Reading is a fairly advanced skill.

JEFFREY BROWN: So does that change things for a writer? Do you write for a changing readership?

URSULA LE GUIN: No, because being a literary writer — although some people would not admit that I am because I have sullied myself with science fiction — no, I write for people who read literature and they are always going to be more or less the same people. It’s not necessarily class or income; it’s just people who like literature.

JEFFREY BROWN: You recently spoke out pretty strongly on the whole situation with Google, Google’s attempt to scan and sell millions of books and you submitted a position to the judge who is looking at this.

URSULA LE GUIN: What I was objecting to was what’s called the Google Book settlement, yeah.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right. But explain, what is it that you worry about here?

URSULA LE GUIN: Oh goodness, it’s so complicated, Jeff. It’s such a huge — the settlement itself is about the length of the Holy Bible, and very few people can even read through it. I think to put it very crudely my main major objection is that a small group of writers led by the Authors Guild made a class action suit and then settled it, and then they are being allowed to speak for all writers — academic writers, journalists, freelancers like me — and the settlement they made is not satisfactory to most of us.


URSULA LE GUIN: Because it will allow Google to — actually as the head of our copyright office remarked — to an end run around copyright. It also allows a corporation to kind of re-write the rules such as copyright, which ought to be controlled firmly by the government. You know how Disney got to the government and got them to re-write copyright law to the extent of extending it to 70 years so that Disney could keep Mickey Mouse? That’s what we’ve got to kind of protect, is that corporations should not be allowed to write the rules that protects both writers and readers.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course it’s interesting, I mean, the dream here of course is an old one, right, of giving more people access to information, creating this global library, right?

URSULA LE GUIN: That’s right. And that library, that is my dream too. It should be a public library. It should be the Library of Congress extended through this immense field of digitalizing sort of everything we have, and it’s not just information. It’s art, too. What I write is not information. I write fiction. It doesn’t inform anybody of anything. But it has its value. And it gets forgotten in all this talk about information should be free, you know.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why do you think it has split the world of writers?

URSULA LE GUIN: I don’t know that it has. I’m afraid an awful lot of writers have not really informed themselves. You know, we tend to be sort of busy doing our writing and sort of feeling that if we belong to a group like Authors Guild or something, that they’ll look after it and sort of see to it that our rights aren’t infringed to the point where we can’t make a living any longer.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, well we’ll follow that. I think the next step, I think it’s next week is the judge has the next hearing on this.


JEFFREY BROWN: Well before I let you go, I know your readers will wonder what you’re working on now. Before we started you were telling me it was poetry.

URSULA LE GUIN: Yeah, I’m putting together a book of my poems from the last few years.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that means going back through time to see what works, what you still like?

URSULA LE GUIN: And having to throw out some of my nice babies because they don’t really fit. I don’t really enjoy putting together a poetry book.

JEFFREY BROWN: How does that compare to writing fiction?

URSULA LE GUIN: Oh, writing a novel is probably what I like to best in the world, but I don’t seem to have a novel to write at the moment.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Ursula Le Guin thanks for talking to us.

URSULA LE GUIN: Thank you.

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