Ursula K. Le Guin Names the Books She Likes and Wants You to Read

ursula k le guin writing advice

Image by Gor­thi­an, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

I’m sure I speak for many when I say that Ursu­la K. Le Guin’s nov­els and sto­ries changed what I thought sci­ence fic­tion could be and do. Raised on H.G. Wells, Isaac Asi­mov, Robert Hein­lein, and oth­er most­ly-white-male-cen­tered clas­sic sci-fi, I found Le Guin’s lit­er­ary thought exper­i­ments star­tling and refresh­ing. Now it seems like almost a mat­ter of course that sci­ence fic­tion and fan­ta­sy nar­ra­tives come from a diver­si­ty of peo­ples and per­spec­tives. But Le Guin remains the first to wake me from a dog­mat­ic slum­ber about the poten­tial of spec­u­la­tive fic­tion to imag­ine not only future tech­nolo­gies, but also expan­sive future iden­ti­ties.

Nov­els like The Left Hand of Dark­ness, The Dis­pos­sessed, and The Lathe of Heav­en reflect Le Guin’s very broad range of inter­ests in pol­i­tics and the human­i­ties and social sci­ences. She began her career as an aca­d­e­m­ic study­ing Renais­sance French and Ital­ian lit­er­a­ture, and her fic­tion syn­the­sizes years of care­ful read­ing in anthro­pol­o­gy, psy­chol­o­gy, soci­ol­o­gy, his­to­ry, and East­ern and West­ern phi­los­o­phy. Like­wise, though she has been much influ­enced by tra­di­tion­al hard sci­ence fic­tion, Le Guin’s lit­er­ary loves are wide and deep. All that’s to say she’s as admirable and inter­est­ing a read­er as she is a writer. When she prais­es a book, I pay atten­tion. Thanks to her genial, loqua­cious online pres­ence for many years, her fans have had ample oppor­tu­ni­ty to find out what she’s read­ing and why.

Le Guin recent­ly made a few lists of books she likes, and made sure to pref­ace each one with a dis­claimer: “This list is not ‘my favorite books.’ It’s just a list of books I’ve read or re-read, recent­ly, that I liked and want­ed to tell peo­ple about.” She leaps from genre to genre, writ­ing mini-reviews of each book and link­ing each one to Powell’s, the inde­pen­dent book­store in her beloved city of Port­land, Ore­gon. Below, we’ve excerpt­ed some of Le Guin’s “Books I’ve Liked” from each list, along with her com­men­tary. Click on each date head­ing to see her com­plete lists of rec­om­men­da­tions.

Decem­ber 2006

See­ing, by José Sara­m­a­go. A sequel to his amaz­ing nov­el Blind­ness. Sara­m­a­go is not easy to read. He punc­tu­ates most­ly with com­mas, doesn’t pararaph often, doesn’t set off con­ver­sa­tion in quotes —; man­ner­isms I wouldn’t endure in a less­er writer; but Sara­m­a­go is worth it. More than worth it. Tran­scen­dent­ly worth it. Blind­ness scared me to death when I start­ed it, but it ris­es won­der­ful­ly out of dark­ness into the light. See­ing goes the oth­er way and is a very fright­en­ing book.

Chang­ing Ones, by Will Roscoe. An exam­i­na­tion of how gen­der has been con­struct­ed in Native Amer­i­can soci­eties. Respon­si­bly researched, very well writ­ten, gen­er­ous in spir­it, nev­er over­sim­pli­fy­ing a com­plex sub­ject, this is a won­der­ful­ly enlight­en­ing book.

Age of Bronze: The Sto­ry of the Tro­jan War. I: A Thou­sand Ships, and II: Sac­ri­fice by Eric Shanow­er. A graph­ic nov­el —; the first two vol­umes of a pro­ject­ed series. The draw­ing is excel­lent, the lan­guage live­ly, and the research awe­some. Shanow­er goes back to the very ori­gins of the war to fol­low the ear­ly careers of the var­i­ous heroes —; Agamem­non and Menelaus, Achilles, Odysseus, Hec­tor, Paris, Aeneas, and their fam­i­lies, par­ents, wives, lovers, chil­dren… Thus, by the end of Book Two, the actu­al siege of Troy, which the Ili­ad tells one part of, is yet to begin. I see a loom­ing prob­lem: the bat­tles (of which there have been a good many already) are visu­al­ly all alike, and there’s end­less­ly more to come —; bat­tle scenes in Homer are bru­tal­ly monot­o­nous and inter­minable (as war is). But these two vol­umes are visu­al­ly and nar­ra­tive­ly var­ied, and give a fas­ci­nat­ing back­ground­ing and inter­pre­ta­tion to the great sto­ries.

June 2007

The Yid­dish Police­men’s Union, by Michael Chabon. Of course if you haven’t read Kava­lier and Clay yet, go read it at once, what on earth have you been wait­ing for? Then read this. It is even a lit­tle cra­zier, maybe. Crazy like a genius.

Suf­fer the Lit­tle Chil­dren, by Don­na Leon. The 16th of Leon’s Venet­ian mys­tery nov­els is one of the finest. I reviewed this book for the Man­ches­ter Guardian

Some young adult books I like — I had to read a lot of them this spring, and these stood out:

The High­er Pow­er of Lucky by Susan Patron. This one has already won the New­bery Award and gone to Kid­dilit Book­sellers Heav­en for­ev­er, so it does­n’t need my endorse­ment… but it’s a love­ly, fun­ny, sweet book, set in a tru­ly god­for­sak­en desert town in Cal­i­for­nia.

Weed­flower by Cyn­thia Kado­ha­ta. A nov­el that goes with its young hero­ine to one of the prison camps where our gov­ern­ment sent all our cit­i­zens of Japan­ese ances­try in 1942 after Pearl Har­bor. It’s a beau­ti­ful book, under­stat­ed and strong and ten­der. If you read it you won’t for­get it.

Sep­tem­ber 2007

Charles Mann, 1491. A bril­liant sur­vey of what we know about the human pop­u­la­tions of the Amer­i­c­as before the arrival of the Euro­peans, and a brief, often scathing his­to­ry of how we’ve han­dled our knowl­edge. The author is not an arche­ol­o­gist or anthro­pol­o­gist, but he has done his home­work, and is a fine reporter and sum­ma­riz­er, writ­ing with clar­i­ty and flair, easy to read but nev­er talk­ing down. Dis­cussing intense­ly con­tro­ver­sial sub­jects such as dates of set­tle­ment and pop­u­la­tion sizes, he lets you know where he stands, but presents both sides fair­ly. A fas­ci­nat­ing, mind-expand­ing book.

Michael Pol­lan, The Omni­vore’s Dilem­ma. I have nev­er eat­en an Ida­ho pota­to since I read Pol­lan’s arti­cle about what pota­to fields are “treat­ed” with, in his ear­li­er book The Botany of Desire. This one is scary in a dif­fer­ent way. It prob­a­bly won’t stop you from eat­ing any­thing, indeed it is a real cel­e­bra­tion of (real) food; but the first sec­tion is as fine a descrip­tion of the blind, incal­cu­la­ble pow­er of Growth Cap­i­tal­ism as I ever read. (Did you know that cat­tle can’t digest corn, and have to be chem­i­cal­ly poi­soned in order to pro­duce “corn­fed beef”? So, there being lots and lots of grass, why feed them corn? Read the book!) There are some depress­ing bits in the sec­tion on “organ­ic” food, too, but the last sec­tion, where he hunts and gath­ers his din­ner, is fun­ny and often touch­ing.

Bar­bara Ehren­re­ich, Nick­el and Dimed. Ehren­re­ich tries to get by on min­i­mum wage, in three dif­fer­ent towns, work­ing as a wait­ress, a house clean­er, in a Wal-Mart… Yes, it came out eight years ago, and yes, it’s just as true now, if not truer. (I just read in my home­town paper that 47% of work­ing peo­ple in Port­land have to rely on food stamps. Not “wel­fare queens” — peo­ple with jobs, work­ing peo­ple.) She writes her sto­ry with tremen­dous verve and exact­ness. It reads like a nov­el, and leaves you all shook up.

August 2008

[Le Guin devot­ed this list to “Some Graph­ic Nov­els,” and wrote about her dif­fi­cul­ty find­ing good “grown-up stuff.” Though most of it was not to her taste (“gross-out vio­lence, or hor­ror, or twee, or sex­ist, or oth­er­wise not down my alley”), she kept “hop­ing, because the form seems to me such a huge­ly promis­ing and adven­tur­ous one.” Below are two graph­ic nov­els she did like. Anoth­er, Age of Bronze, she men­tioned above in her 2006 list.]

Mar­jane Satrapi’s Perse­po­lis I and II, and her oth­er books. (The movie of Perse­po­lis was charm­ing but it real­ly didn’t add much to the book.) I admire her draw­ing, which is decep­tive­ly sim­ple but very sub­tly designed, using the pure con­trast-pow­er of black-and-white. The draw­ings and the text com­bine so seam­less­ly that I’m not aware of look­ing back and forth between them, I’m just tak­ing it all in at once — Which I think is pret­ty much my ide­al for a graph­ic nar­ra­tive?

Joann Sfar’s The Rabbi’s Cat I and II. Three con­nect­ed sto­ries in each vol­ume. The first two sto­ries in the first vol­ume are pure delight. They are fun­ny and wise and show you a world you almost cer­tain­ly nev­er knew exist­ed. The rab­bi is a dear, the rabbi’s daugh­ter is a dear, and the rabbi’s cat is all cat, all through, all the way down. (I won­dered why Sfar drew him so strange­ly, until I looked at the pho­to­graph of Sfar’s cat on the cov­er.) The sec­ond vol­ume isn’t quite as great, but the first sto­ry in it is awful­ly fun­ny and well drawn, with the most irre­sistible lion, and it’s all enjoy­able. Sfar’s imag­i­na­tion and col­or are won­der­ful. His pub­lish­er should be pil­lo­ried in Times Square for print­ing the art in Vol II so small that you lit­er­al­ly need a mag­ni­fy­ing glass to read some of the con­ti­nu­ity. — I gath­er that Sfar and Satrapi are friends. Are we on the way to hav­ing a great school of graph­ic nov­els by For­eign­ers Liv­ing in Paris?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ursu­la Le Guin Gives Insight­ful Writ­ing Advice in Her Free Online Work­shop

Hear Ursu­la K. Le Guin’s Pio­neer­ing Sci-Fi Nov­el, The Left Hand of Dark­ness, as a BBC Radio Play

Hear Ursu­la K. Le Guin’s Sto­ry, “The End” Dra­ma­tized: A Rare Audio Treat

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (1)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • shakira says:

    Still you haven’t read Kava­lier and Clay yet, go read it at once, Then read this. It is even a lit­tle cra­zier . Crazy like a genius.

    [link|http://www.trans4mind.com/counterpoint/index-goals-life-coaching/riddle1.shtml|How to Stay Pos­i­tive in Chal­leng­ing Times]

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.