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Ursula K. Le Guin’s Playful and Profound Letter-Poem to Children About the Power of Books and Why We Read

“…for every book contains a world.”

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Playful and Profound Letter-Poem to Children About the Power of Books and Why We Read

When asked in the Proust Questionnaire about his idea of perfect happiness, David Bowie answered simply: “Reading.” But the question of why we read unlatches as many responses as there are flavors of human happiness. Some memorable and poetic answers have come from Hermann Hesse, Rebecca Solnit, Neil Gaiman, C.S. Lewis, and Proust himself.

A thoroughly original and most delightful one comes from the irreplaceable Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) in her contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) — which, as far as I am aware, was her last published piece of original writing at the time the book alighted on the world.

Written in verse, in the voice of an aged dragon — “second cousin once removed” of Smaug, Tolkien’s iconic antagonist from The Hobbit — and illustrated by her longtime friend and collaborator Charles Vess, the letter-poem emanates Le Guin’s signature warm wisdom, syncopating the playful and the profound.

Original art by Charles Vess for Ursula K. Le Guin’s contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, edited by Maria Popova and Claudia Zoe Bedrick.

Dear Reader,

Most dragons don’t know how to read. They hiss and fume and guard their hoard. A tasty knight is what they need
For dinner (they spit out the sword),
Then go to sleep on heaps of treasure. They’ve no use for the written word.
But I learned early to take pleasure
In reading tales and poetry,
And soon I knew that I preferred
Reading a book to fighting knights.
I lived on apple pie and tea,
Which a kind lady made for me,
And all my days and half my nights
Were spent in reading story-books,
A life more thrilling than it looks.
Now that I’m old and cannot see
To read, the lady’s youngest child
Comes every day to read to me,
A cheerful child named Valentine.
We’re both as happy as can be
Among the treasures I have piled
In heaps around my apple tree.
No other dragon watches curled
Around such riches as are mine,
My Word-hoard, my dear Library:
For every book contains a world!

       Yours truly,
       Bedraug (Smaug’s Second Cousin Once Removed)

For more tastes of A Velocity of Being — a labor of love eight years in the making, with all proceeds benefiting our local public library system (lest we forget, Le Guin herself passionately championed the sacredness of public libraries) — savor select letters by Alain de Botton, Jacqueline Woodson, and Jane Goodall, then revisit Le Guin on literature as the operating instructions for life, writing as falling in love, the power of storytelling to transform and redeem, and her timeless hymn to time.

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Neil Gaiman Reads Ursula K. Le Guin’s Ode to Timelessness to His 100-Year-Old Cousin

“In the vast abyss before time, self is not, and soul commingles with mist, and rock, and light.”

Neil Gaiman Reads Ursula K. Le Guin’s Ode to Timelessness to His 100-Year-Old Cousin

“Consciousness is tied to corporeality and temporality: I experience myself as existing with a body over time,” the German psychologist Marc Wittman wrote in his insightful investigation of the psychology of time. “Do you sometimes want to wake up to the singularity we once were?” poet Marie Howe asked in the opening lines of her stunning tribute to Stephen Hawking — a question that cuts to the heart of our uneasy embodied temporality. How do creatures with lifespans that rarely stretch past a century fathom cosmic scales stretching billions of years, back to the dawn of everything, when time and matter were undivided as the raw material of the universe? How does the very notion of a self, around which we orient our entire existence, hold up against such sweeps at all?

Perhaps the interplay between deep time and self is more fathomable to those perched on the overlook of life, who have lived long enough to view being and nonbeing with equal immediacy.

When my good friend and fellow poetry lover Amanda Palmer asked me to send a poem for her husband, Neil Gaiman, to read to his 100-year-old cousin, Helen Fagin — the Holocaust survivor who composed that arresting letter to children about how books save lives — I chose a poem by one of Neil’s dear friends, Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018), found in her final poetry collection, So Far So Good (public library) — one of the loveliest books of 2018.

Amanda immortalized this sweet and rather profound moment in a short video, shared here with the kind permission of everyone involved:

HOW IT SEEMS TO ME
by Ursula K. Le Guin

In the vast abyss before time, self
is not, and soul commingles
with mist, and rock, and light. In time,
soul brings the misty self to be.
Then slow time hardens self to stone
while ever lightening the soul,
till soul can loose its hold of self
and both are free and can return
to vastness and dissolve in light,
the long light after time.

A voracious reader and lifelong lover of poetry, Helen arrived in America in 1946 not speaking a word of English, then went on to earn a Ph.D. and become a professor of literature. She recently shared with me a kindred verse by her favorite American poet, Walt Whitman — a man who contemplated the paradox of the self throughout his lush body of work — which she long ago adopted as her personal motto:

The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into a new tongue.

In striking consonance with the nonduality at the heart of Le Guin’s poem, the line that prefaces this passage in Whitman’s Song of Myself is “I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul.”

Complement with Whitman himself on the key to living a vibrant and rewarding life and Le Guin’s “Hymn to Time,” then revisit Amanda Palmer’s wondrous readings of two poems by Helen’s compatriot, the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska: “Possibilities” and “Life While-You-Wait.”

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Freedom and Creative Vitality in a Market Society: Ursula K. Le Guin on Saving Books from Profiteering and Commodification

“Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.”

Freedom and Creative Vitality in a Market Society: Ursula K. Le Guin on Saving Books from Profiteering and Commodification

“To get fame and money, for the sake of which I wrote, it was necessary to hide the good and to display the evil,” Leo Tolstoy confessed with uncompromising self-awareness in reflecting on his youthful vice of writing for the wrong reasons — as a young man, he had treated the making of literature as a means to a material end, a bargaining chip traded for admiration and profit with other literary profiteers who were just as “self-confident and self-satisfied as only those can be who are quite holy or who do not know what holiness is.” Around the same time, across the Atlantic, the young William James made the difficult decision of choosing purpose over profit — a decision that would eventually establish him as the founding father of American psychology — and observed the crux of the tradeoff: “After all, the great problem of life seems to be how to keep body and soul together.” Of course, artists must eat — but at what cost does their livelihood come, weighed on whose scale?

Nearly a century and half after James and Tolstoy’s moral struggle with the competing forces of culture and commerce — a struggle that has intensified infinitely with the rise of the modern market system — another titan of literature and seer of truth addressed these elemental questions of creative culture with uncommon lucidity and luminosity of sentiment.

On November 19, 2014, Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) took the podium to receive her second National Book Award with a short, stunning acceptance speech, later included in Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000–2016, with a Journal of a Writer’s Week (public library) — the splendid collection that gave us Le Guin on the artist’s task in meaning-making and her operating instructions for life.

Ursula K. Le Guin (Photograph: Euan Monaghan)

Le Guin writes:

Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see 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 writers who can remember freedom — poets, visionaries — realists of a larger reality.

Le Guin was a seer in the largest sense — her gaze bent past our culture’s horizons of peril and possibility visible to most, and she saw the early warning sings of a darkening reality. A decade after she first began admonishing against the commodification of art, she points to the creation of cultural artifacts motivated not by artistic merit but by marketability as one of the most perilous traps of our times:

Right now, we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial. I see my own publishers, in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an e-book six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience, and writers threatened by corporate fatwa. And I see a lot of us, the producers, who write the books and make the books, accepting this — letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish, what to write.

Le Guin ends her admonition on a hopeful and empowering note — a clarion call for resistance, reminding us that any broken system is fixable, and that the fixing falls on our own participatory hands. More than half a century after Eleanor Roosevelt insisted in her dying hour that “we do make our history [and] we are making it now — today — by the choices that shape our course,” Le Guin exhorts:

Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.

I’ve had a long career as a writer, and a good one, in good company. Here at the end of it, I don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want and should demand our fair share of the proceeds; but the name of our beautiful reward isn’t profit. Its name is freedom.

Art by Violeta Lópiz for a letter by Lucianne Walkowicz from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.

Le Guin’s unassailable belief in literature as a force of freedom and her fierce advocacy for public libraries were a large part of our inspiration for donating all proceeds from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader — which contains her last published piece — to the public library system. Seeing her deliver the speech live, with quietly impassioned conviction and incandescent dignity, only amplifies the urgency and bittersweet hopefulness of her message, which stands as a pillar of her legacy:

Complement the thoroughly scrumptious Words Are My Matter with Le Guin on poetry and science, storytelling as an instrument of freedom, getting to the other side of suffering, the power of art to transform and redeem, the art of growing older, and her classic unsexing of gender.

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Ursula K. Le Guin on Suffering and Getting to the Other Side of Pain

“All you have is what you are, and what you give.”

Ursula K. Le Guin on Suffering and Getting to the Other Side of Pain

Simone Weil considered it the highest existential discipline to “make use of the sufferings that chance inflicts upon us.” George Bernard Shaw saw suffering as our supreme conduit to empathy. “We suffer more in imagination than in reality,” Seneca observed before offering his millennia-old, timeless antidote to anxiety. And yet we do suffer and the pain incurred, whatever the suffering is grounded in, is real. How we orient ourselves to our suffering — or to the suffering, as Buddhist might correct the ego-illusion and reaffirm our shared reality — may be the single most significant predictor of our happiness, wellbeing, and capacity for joy. “Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve,” C.S. Lewis wrote in contemplating how suffering confers agency upon life, “and you find that you have excluded life itself.”

That indelible relationship between suffering and life is what Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) explores throughout The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (public library) — the superb 1974 novel, part science fiction and part philosophy, that gave us Le Guin’s insight into time, loyalty, and the root of human responsibility.

Ursula K. Le Guin (Based on photograph by Benjamin Reed)

The novel’s protagonist — the idealistic prodigy physicist Shevek, visiting a beautiful earth-like world from a society inhabiting the world’s barren moon, where a colony had seceded long ago, disenchanted with the profiteering and “propertarian” values of an increasingly materialistic and selfish human society — channels Le Guin’s philosophical insight into the paradoxes of existence and the pitfalls of human society:

Suffering is a misunderstanding.

[…]

It exists… It’s real. I can call it a misunderstanding, but I can’t pretend that it doesn’t exist, or will ever cease to exist. Suffering is the condition on which we live. And when it comes, you know it. You know it as the truth. Of course it’s right to cure diseases, to prevent hunger and injustice, as the social organism does. But no society can change the nature of existence. We can’t prevent suffering. This pain and that pain, yes, but not Pain. A society can only relieve social suffering, unnecessary suffering. The rest remains. The root, the reality. All of us here are going to know grief; if we live fifty years, we’ll have known pain for fifty years… And yet, I wonder if it isn’t all a misunderstanding — this grasping after happiness, this fear of pain… If instead of fearing it and running from it, one could… get through it, go beyond it. There is something beyond it. It’s the self that suffers, and there’s a place where the self—ceases. I don’t know how to say it. But I believe that the reality — the truth that I recognize in suffering as I don’t in comfort and happiness — that the reality of pain is not pain. If you can get through it. If you can endure it all the way.

Defining freedom as “that recognition of each person’s solitude which alone transcends it,” Le Guin pits her idealistic protagonist against an imperfect society, which he addresses in a public speech at the climax of the novel — a speech he delivers before an enormous crowd of his fellow antiauthoritarian socialists, who have taken to the streets in furious desperation in the face of growing privation and inequity on the beautiful but corrupt Earth-like world:

It is our suffering that brings us together. It is not love. Love does not obey the mind, and turns to hate when forced. The bond that binds us is beyond choice. We are brothers. We are brothers in what we share. In pain, which each of us must suffer alone, in hunger, in poverty, in hope, we know our brotherhood. We know it, because we have had to learn it. We know that there is no help for us but from one another, that no hand will save us if we do not reach out our hand. And the hand that you reach out is empty, as mine is. You have nothing. You possess nothing. You own nothing. You are free. All you have is what you are, and what you give.

Art by Jean-Pierre Weill from The Well of Being

In the privacy of his mind, spawned of Le Guin’s own mind, Shevek reflects on the central paradox of suffering:

If you evade suffering you also evade the chance of joy. Pleasure you may get, or pleasures, but you will not be fulfilled. You will not know what it is to come home… Fulfillment… is a function of time. The search for pleasure is circular, repetitive, atemporal… It has an end. It comes to the end and has to start over. It is not a journey and return, but a closed cycle, a locked room, a cell… The thing about working with time, instead of against it, …is that it is not wasted. Even pain counts.

The Dispossessed is a thoroughly magnificent read, exploring themes of staggeringly timely resonance to our socially confused and politically troubled world. Complement this particular fragment with the brilliant and underappreciated Rebecca West on survival and the redemption of suffering, then revisit Le Guin on poetry and science, the power of art to transform and redeem, the art of growing older, storytelling as an instrument of freedom, and her classic unsexing of gender.

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