I Give Up
I can face life without Astronomy, but not those.
UPDATED: For one thing, Ursula Le Guin never writes for Astronomy.
As people these days can maintain nonthreatening, unloaded, sociable conversation by talking about who murdered whom on the latest hit TV police procedural or mafia show, so strangers on the train or coworkers on the job in 1841 could talk perfectly unaffectedly together about The Old Curiosity Shop and whether poor Little Nell was going to cop it. Since public school education was strong on poetry and various literary classics, a lot of people would recognize and enjoy a reference to Tennyson, or Scott, or Shakespeare—shared properties, a social meeting ground. A man might be less likely to boast about falling asleep at the sight of a Dickens novel [as an AP reporter recently did - geez, people usually brag about not getting sleep!] than to feel left out of things by not having read it.
The social quality of literature is still visible in the popularity of best-sellers. Publishers get away with making boring, baloney-mill novels into bestsellers via mere PR because people need bestsellers. It is not a literary need. It is a social need. We want books everybody is reading (and nobody finishes) so we can talk about them.
If we bought books over from England by ship these days, crowds would have swarmed on the docks of New York to greet the final volume of Harry Potter, crying [as they did for Little Nell], “Did she kill him? Is he dead?” The Potter boom was a genuine social phenomenon, like the worship of rock stars and the whole subculture of popular music, which offer adolescents and young adults both an exclusive in-group and a shared social experience.
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.
Gotta love Le Guin.