We lost one of the literary greats on Monday when Ursula K. Le Guin passed away.
It's hard to know where to begin when talking about her; it's easy to highlight the facts of her accomplishments, to talk about how prolific her bookshelf was. With books spanning over 5 decades, written for all age groups and in many genres, it's tempting just to tick off all those numbers.
But that doesn't get at the true impact she had on so many people's lives, including my own. It doesn't get at the depth of her work, the audacity of her ideas. It doesn't get at what an all-around amazing person she was. I feel cheesy using the word "inspiration," but that's what she was to me and countless others, not only for her mastery of storytelling, but for her willingness to share her expertise and her fierce advocacy of intellectual freedom.
One speech that encapsulates a lot of her personality and her commitment to the things she cared about is the one she made when accepting a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Foundation. Take a look:
Whether you're new to Le Guin's work or would like to revisit her work in remembrance, there are 4 books I'd like to highlight that are guaranteed to make an impression:
Le Guin's books have been a constant throughout my life, starting with my childhood readings of the Earthsea books. I read them for the fun fantasy plots, only later realizing that they were so much more. Now I see the underlying themes and the sometimes revolutionary ideas contained in her writing, especially her dedication to writing people of color into her books. This representation, always important, was particularly notable in the 1960s and 70s when they were written. In 2004, Le Guin famously denounced the makers of the TV mini-series Earthsea with the essay A Whitewashed Earthsea: How the Sci Fi Channel wrecked my books.
Well, now— no holds barred, eh?
As a teen I read her adult novels, which, like her children's books, are the best type of fantasy-- the kind that have engaging stories but are also chock full of stuff that will make you think. My diving in point was The Lathe of Heaven, a story about a man whose dreams can change the world. If you've never read her before, this is a great place to start!
It was when I reached adulthood, however, that I was able to appreciate her works of poetry and nonfiction, many of which deal with writing, reading, storytelling, and imagination in some way or another.
Late in the Day was my first foray into her poetry, and I loved how the collection is suffused with a deep sense of calm. It explores the natural world and the beauty of the everyday with a tenderness and deceptive simplicity that moved me before I even knew what was happening.
Finally, we have the first book I ever spent time with— truly spent time with— A Wave in the Mind. This book took me probably 6 months to read, not because it was too difficult, not because it was too long, not because I wasn't engaged, but because it was simply bursting at the seams with literary ideas that my brain closed around like a squirrel with a nut. I sat with it for those 6 months just thinking, thinking, thinking, and having my mind generally blown.
The thing that particularly struck me in Wave in the Mind is how feminist she was in this beautifully un-self-conscious, quietly defiant way. This was a woman who knew her mind, knew her worth, and didn't put up with any bullies. She rejected the idea that there is a "right" way to do writing and art, and she freed herself from societal expectations while still retaining a bit of self-deprecating humor and a your-mileage-may-vary attitude that seemed to say, 'while the prevailing idea of what's right is rubbish, so equally may be this old lady's, so take it all with a grain of salt and make up your own mind.'
Make up your own mind— that's what her work has always said to me. She always seemed to be pushing her readers to do better, to think more. She made us challenge us our biases and to really look at what we believe and how we make our way through the world. How many people can you say that about? She was the rarest of the rare, and I'm going to miss her.