Thursday, 25 January 2018

Review: No Time to Spare: Thinking about What Matters

No Time to Spare: Thinking about What Matters No Time to Spare: Thinking about What Matters by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While I still had 10% of this book left to read, I heard that Ursula Le Guin had died, which made the rest of my read an opportunity to mourn our loss of a wise, deep thinker and excellent writer. Though she had little patience for literary vs genre divisions, she was often counted among "literary" writers, and the primary reason is, I think, that her work combines close observation of the ordinary with a deep interiority. Her work would be hard to film, just because most of the interesting stuff is happening slowly, and inside the characters.

It's not, I'll be honest, a style that I'm always in the mood for, and it took me a while to finish reading this book, too, for the same reason. It's made up of blog posts, but because this is Le Guin, they're blog posts that rise to the level of essays. And, also because this is Le Guin, a lot of them are more observation or memoir than argument, though there are certainly some that take a point of view and argue it.

As Karen Joy Fowler's introduction says, "Le Guin is not the kind of sage who demands agreement and obeisance", so I will include here a minor criticism.

Nobody is wise all the time, as Le Guin demonstrated over the Amazon/Hachette kerfuffle. At the time, I felt that she had committed the inverse error of libertarianism: some libertarians assume that all corporations are good, while she seemed to assume, just as blindly, that all corporations, and all their works, are always and inevitably evil. In one of the pieces here, she claims that Hugh Howey called her a liar in the context of that controversy.

Now, Hugh isn't always wise either, by any means, but that didn't sound like him; I spent a few minutes on Google and concluded that this was almost certainly based on a misattribution of another person's words to him in a poorly-written Salon article, which conflates two quotes from a piece in the New York Times. Le Guin, understandably though erroneously nettled, goes on to sarcastically misrepresent Howey's position. (What he'd actually said was that trad-pub authors who were defending Hachette had been lied to, a situation that the Salon article perpetuated.) In another chapter - speaking, no doubt, from personal experience - she wisely remarks that "Anger continued on past its usefulness becomes unjust, then dangerous," a lesson that may be applicable here.

For me, she's at her best when observing phenomena, and at her - not worst, perhaps, but certainly least good - when evaluating them, though with her trenchant observations, it's often a fine line between the two. She has a wonderful turn of phrase: speaking of feminism in the 70s, she remarks that "Terrified misogynists of both sexes were howling that the house was burning down before most feminists found out where the matches were," and on literary receptions: "If piano is the opposite of forte, graceful chitchat with strangers is definitely my piano."

She concludes the book, suddenly and unexpectedly, with a question that no doubt arises from her long study of Taoism: What is entity? It seems her life and work were, in part, an attempt to answer that question - an attempt that can inspire the rest of us to continue to pursue a deeper understanding and a greater connection with the world. Certainly, she's inspired me to imagine other worlds than these where the differences are not, or not only, technological or magical, but sociological and anthropological as well, and to really sink in to what such worlds might be like, in a way that perhaps can bring back insights for real, contemporary life.

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