Book Review

Words Are My Matter by Ursula K. Le Guin


Genre: Nonfiction

Ursula K. Le Guin is one of the most influential writers of science fiction and fantasy in the world. She’s been publishing since the 1960s and is still going strong. I grew up on Le Guin. My mom read the Earthsea books ( A | BN | K | AB ) to me when I was a kid recovering from surgery in the hospital, and after that same surgery I tried to read The Eye of the Heron ( A | BN | K | AB ), The Dispossessed ( A | BN | K | AB ), and The Left Hand of Darkness ( A | BN | K | AB ), which of course went completely over my head (I was twelve).

Luckily I kept growing, and reading and re-reading Le Guin, and as I grew up I found more and more of her work to love and got at least a little bit better at understanding it. I think of her as one of my literary grandmothers. Her new collection, Words Are My Matter: Writings about Life and Books 2000-2016 is like opening a big pile of letters from someone I admire and love so I can imagine drinking tea with them while we plot revolution and the overthrow of the patriarchy.

The collection is organized into sections: “Talks, Essays, and Occasional Pieces,” “Book Introductions and Notes on Writers,” “Book Reviews,” and “The Hope of Rabbits: A Journal of a Writer’s Week.” The last section, the journal of a week, is about a week she spent at a retreat for women who are artists.

While I enjoyed everything in the book, the most electric section is “Talks, Essays, and Occasional Pieces.” When Le Guin speaks, she imparts warmth and humor while also conveying an unwavering devotion to fighting injustice. She is not malicious but neither does she mince words. Everyone, regardless of their feelings about abortion, should read her short piece “What It Was Like.” a transcript of a speech she made to the Oregon chapter of NARAL in 2004, about the times before abortion was legal. This speech, when read in its entirety, is so powerful that I had to take a break after reading it; it made me woozy.

Another stand out is her speech “Freedom,” which she made when accepting the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contributions to American Letters in 2014:

Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see the alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need readers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.

Her autobiographical essay, “Living in a Work of Art,” is a love letter to her childhood home and a reflection on how growing up amidst beautiful things shapes a personality. She has several essays that deal with the changing world of publishing and reading; I’m in love with her speech “Genre: A Word Only a Frenchman Could Love” in which she says “There are many bad books. There are no bad genres.”

Le Guin’s book reviews and other commentary will mostly be of interest to long-time fans who love to see what she thinks and above all how she thinks. Le Guin’s review of Jo Walton’s Among Others was interesting mostly because I had previously read Among Others. However, although I have never read a book by Jan Morris, I’m still captivated by Le Guin’s review of Morris’ Hav, because I like seeing how Le Guin thinks. She writes conversationally enough that I almost feel like we could hang out in her kitchen, and I could reply with, “Well I think…” and then we would talk about books and also raising children and pets.

The reason I open with talking about my life and my connection with Le Guin’s work is that many Le Guin fans are not casual fans. We are maybe just a teeny bit obsessive, but not in a bad way. This book is, for the most part, for fans on the obsessive-but-not-in-a-bad-way end of the spectrum. Le Guin’s books brought me comfort when I was enduring something terrible and they’ve gone on to nurture my soul and challenge my mind. So for me, this collection is solid gold. The only reason I’m giving it a B and not an A is that it’s not cohesive work (intentionally). It’s like a collection of special features on a DVD.

If you’ve never read Le Guin, start with her fiction. The Earthsea series is a good start, as are any of her short story collections. You can find more suggestions of how to dive into Le Guin’s work here.

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Words Are My Matter by Ursula Le Guin

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  1. Joy says:

    There is a recent piece in the New Yorker magazine about Le Guin that gives a lot of insight on her life and writings. I heartily recommend it.

  2. cleo says:

    I love Ursula Le Guin! Put me in the obsessive but in a good way category. I have not read every book that she’s written and not all of her fiction works for me, but the books that resonate with me resonate deeply and profoundly in ways I can’t possibly explain. The Tombs of Atuan and Four Ways to Forgiveness are probably my two most favorite.

    I’ve read two of her previous collections of essays and other non-fiction writings and they’re really meaningful to me. As is her interpretation of the Tao Te Ching.

    TL;DR – I want to read this book! Thanks for the review.

  3. Hazel says:

    This sounds really good, Carrie. Thank you.

  4. Really nice piece I am just now discovering, while writing my own post about this book and other recent UKL nonfiction collections. I certainly understand your affection for Le Guin! It’s a huge loss.

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