If we heed the advice of late-Renaissance polymath Francis Bacon and agree that the chief purpose of reading is “to weigh and consider” then Ursula K. Le Guin’s compendium of essays, No Time to Spare: Thinking about What Matters, is an essential text. The book represents a selection of her blog posts, spanning the years 2010 to 2015*, which may cause some would-be readers to recoil (i.e. those who cannot justify purchasing writing that is available for free online), but I submit that you’re paying a nominal convenience fee to have someone else pick the choicest texts from the expansive repertoire and compile them in a handsome volume. A lot of books promise the provocation of thought, but Le Guin actually delivers. Pass up on a few overpriced lattes if you need to—the stimulation here is far less ephemeral than caffeine.
In her introductory note, Le Guin defines her essays in the manner of the founder of the form, Montaigne. These are not to be taken as polished critical essays, but rather as an exposure of her mind as she tries out her thoughts. Unlike Montaigne, however, Le Guin does not exhibit blatant contradictions and meandering digressions that misnomerize the titles; quite the opposite in fact. Whereas Montaigne is essentially an application of and commentary on Seneca (among other classical thinkers), Le Guin holds fast to her own thoughts. Montaigne safely hides behind the Whitmanian creed “I am large” (forgive the anachronism); Le Guin offers air-tight propositions that stimulate a renewed mode of approaching the world instead of the clash of opinion stimulating opinion that pollutes so much of today’s writing. As she says in one essay, “Opinion all too often leaves no room for anything but itself.”
Reading Le Guin’s essays, I can feel my slumbering contentiousness awakening to the nuances of the things I’m thinking and saying. Her tone is anything but condescending, however, though she does not shy away from her intolerance with how much of our time we spend blindly going through life without thinking. Anyone who manages to get me to become sensitive to the world around me in a welcome sage. Like, say, Annie Dillard, Le Guin makes an epic of the ordinary—a quality I’ve also seen attributed to Stephen King. Like King in his non-fiction prose (On Writing, Secret Windows: Essays and Fiction on the Craft of Writing), Le Guin has achieved a distinct voice and authority that not only causes the reader to want to listen to her speak but also to weight and consider the things she’s saying. No doubt this effect is a result of the many years she has lived and the perfection of her creative writing craft (perhaps she’ll forgive my use of creative here).
The panoply of topics covered in the book includes old age, feminism, cats, writing, The Great American Novel, vegetarians, capitalism, soft-boiled eggs, and more. No matter the subject, Le Guin’s passion for thinking and writing run at full bore. As she says, “Words are my magic, antiproverbial cake. I eat it, and I still have it.” Many people have the gift of foresight, intuition, genius even, but the ability to construe their thoughts with the written word requires another set of skills. And whether she is razing the Catholic Church to the ground in a single page, illuminating the sacred soft-boiled-egg-cracking ceremony, exposing the blind gluttony of capitalism, or gleaning life lessons from her cat (Pard), Le Guin displays the hallmarks of a writer who knows what works and what doesn’t.
I remember the first time I read Gloria Steinem’s startling sentence: “One day an army of gray-haired women may quietly take over the Earth.” It startled me because of the view I had of gray-haired women at the time (I was, I think, in my early twenties). Sure, I revered my maternal and paternal grandmothers, but this was the first time I’d seen such language used by their kind. I thought they were supposed to exist in the background, making huge meals that promised leftovers for weeks, knitting quilts for the winter, and sending checks for birthdays. It is a tragic circumstance that I had somehow imbibed this disposition, but I am thankful for writers like Gloria Steinem, Marilynne Robinson, and Ursula K. Le Guin for helping me out of the cave. There is a wisdom here that I have come not only to appreciate but to cherish.
In one of the later essays, Le Guin tells us that “[a] teaching, a blessing, may come in strange ways, ways we do not expect, or control, or welcome, or understand.” And when they come “[w]e are left to think it over.” Too many of us do not have the tools or the discipline to recognize these teachings, these blessings; or, if we do, we eschew the opportunity to think them over. Perhaps it is a case of apathy, or ennui, or drowning in the deluge of information that bombards us each day. I argue that No Time to Spare offers the stimulus we need to become more active weighers and considerers.
* My digital advance reader copy of this book makes it tedious to verify these dates, so it is an approximation based on my memory.