Ursula Le Guin Blogs and Reflects


Ursula K. Le Guin
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 240 pages

Bloggers don't usually get to publish their posts in book form. Then again, not many bloggers are Ursula Le Guin, whose fantasy, science fiction, and children's books have expanded our imaginations and dared us to think of alternative worlds and ways we can make this one better. One suspects she must have had to build on to her Berkeley, California domicile to house all the awards she has garnered in her fifty plus years of publishing. In 2010, Le Guin drew inspiration from Portuguese novelist José Saramago and decided to try her hand at blogging.

Here's where things get a bit tougher to evaluate. On the blog, Le Guin is the main subject, not her characters. In a word, she becomes mortal. At age 88, Le Guin intends that to take her title literally—no time to spare. Blog writing, however, is a decidedly less edited, less censorious, less organized form of writing. One can basically write whatever one wishes. Given a choice between specialized and generalized approaches, Le Guin opts for the latter. No Time to Spare is organized into four themes—ageing, reflections on literature, critiquing society and her place in it, and wistfully musing over the things that have given her pleasure. These themes are, nonetheless, as loose as a kaftan. Le Guin has earned the right to indulge and does so. In practical terms this means her readers are confronted with a literary roundup of thoroughbreds contained in the same corral as plow horses and swaybacks.

At her best, Le Guin charms and beguiles. "The Horsies Upstairs" is a delightful and imaginative piece that invites us to view the world through the eyes of a two-year-old, not the logic of the adults all around her. Le Guin writes, "How does a child arrange a vast world that is always turning out new stuff? She does it the best she can, and doesn't bother with what she can't until she has to." In her observations of a child's question of where the horses sleep, Le Guin challenges us to think about what we mean by the word "real." Equally charming are the various intercalary blogs about her cat Pard. As one of her posts puts it, any feline caretaker needs to be mindful of the difference between "choosing a cat" and being "chosen by a cat." Pard is a rascal and even the most ardent dog person will smile when reading of his various adventures, misadventures, and cat cantankerousness.

How readers will respond to Le Guin's own cantankerousness probably depends upon whether or not you agree or disagree with the opinions she expresses. Do you share her view that Hemingway was a lazy writer? Does first-person writing that blurs the line between fiction and memoir annoy you? (Do you even care about the issue?) Is it a cheap shot to suggest that fantasy writing is as intellectually valid as religious fundamentalism, even if you think she's right (as do I)? Le Guin has long been a critic of unexamined belief, but I can imagine some readers will take deep exception to her takedown of New Age magical thinking, especially the notion of recovering one's Inner Child. She can barely contain her snark when contemplating a Catholic conference on exorcism. Does she go too far when she claims that definitions of demonic possession are so broad that her deep love of Beethoven's 9th Symphony could be so interpreted? To be fair, Le Guin has long championed rationalism. In my view, her post on "Belief in Belief" is utterly brilliant in the simplicity with which she highlights the problems that occur when we use "I think" and "I believe" as synonyms. As she puts it, "I don't believe in" Darwinian evolutionary theory, "I accept it. It isn't a matter of faith, but of evidence."  

In my mind, there are some very wise things in her meditations. She doesn't have a high view of life in contemporary America. Economists and capitalists come under scrutiny of their worship of "uncontrolled, unlimited, unceasing growth as the only recipe for economic health," and she decries the foolishness of ignoring limits and balance. She is equally concerned about the non-reflection of her fellow citizens: "I have watched my country accept, mostly complacently, along with a lower living standard for more and more people, a lower moral standard. A moral standard based on advertising." She's not optimistic the nation can endure "living on spin and illusion, hot air and hogwash."

It must be said that some of the pieces are fluff and others one-trick ponies. Even if you agree that today's bombardment of F-bombs is annoying, you might still find her "Will You Please Fucking Stop?" churlish. She similarly overextends herself in a rather silly piece on "vegempathy." In the end, of course, this is how one must evaluate blog collections. I too am a blogger and as much as I'd like to think everything I write is sensible, correct, and important, such an attitude is what I "believe," not what I "think." Do not read this collection looking for insight into Le Guin's books; Le Guin's blog is about her. She is undoubtedly more gifted than most bloggers, but not even she is immune from the blogger's curse: not every piece is a winner. Call this one a classic mixed bag.

Rob Weir

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