Feb. 26th, 2017

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What a joy it is to read anything by Ursula Le Guin. In this instance, the "anything" is a collection of non-fiction writing - occasional pieces, book reviews, forewords to other people's books, essays on writing and writers and life. Given the somewhat lengthy title and subtitle of Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000–2016 with A Journal of a Writer’s Week, this collection is a smorgasbord of delights from one of the finest writers and clearest thinkers of our time.

The essays presented here are collected into three sections. The first, titled Talks, Essays and Occasional Pieces, offers exactly what it suggests. Most of these essays deal in one way or another with writing, publishing, writers, books. About genre vs. "literature" and the effects of the new media on reading - she is optimistic about the future of the book, in some form or other.

One essay that does not focus on the worlds of words - her account of choosing to terminate a pregnancy during her university years, well before Roe v. Wade, and the importance of being able to make that choice - was difficult to read. In it, she says: "I can hardly imagine what it’s like to live as a woman under Fundamentalist Islamic law. I can hardly remember now, fifty-four years later, what it was like to live under Fundamentalist Christian law. Thanks to Roe vs. Wade, none of us in America has lived in that place for half a lifetime." But I could not stop thinking about the very real possibility that American women will face that reality again.

The second section, Book Introductions and Notes on Writers, contains an assortment of mostly commissioned pieces in which she briefly discusses - as is appropriate for an introduction to the text - authors and books she respects and loves. From Huxley's Brave New World to Boris and Arkady Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic to Vonda McIntyre's Dreansnake, Le Guin's insights into these books are both profound and inviting.

The final essay section of the book collects Le Guin's critical reviews, most of which were published in the Manchester Guardian. These reviews cover books both literary and genre, by such authors as Margaret Atwood, Italo Calvino, Doris Lessing, Salmon Rushdie, Jo Walton, Jeannette Winterson and others. Le Guin's critical eye is discerning and unflinching and she delivers both praise and critique with thoughtful analysis.

The last section of the book consists of journal entries made by Le Guin during a week spent at a writers' retreat for women. In her introduction to the journal, she talks about the practice of gender segregated events:

"I hold it self-evident that so long as we live in a man’s world, as we still do, women have a right to create enclaves of learning or work where, instead of obeying or imitating what men do and want, women can shape what they do, how they do it, and why they do it, in their own way and on their own terms. No enclave is the whole reality, no exclusivity is entirely rightful, but when a great injustice prevails, any opportunity of counteracting it, undoing it even temporarily, is justified. Intellect and art have been so wholly owned by men, and that ownership so fiercely maintained, that no woman can assume society will simply grant her a rightful share in them. Many women still find it difficult, even frightening, to name themselves thinkers, makers, to say I am a scholar, a scientist, an artist. A place where such fear has no place, and a period of time given purely to doing one’s own work, is for many men a perfectly reasonable expectation, for many women an astounding, once-in-a-lifetime gift."

In her journal she writes about the environment of the retreat - the natural world around her, the animals she observes - and about the other people in residence during her week's visit. She talks about the writing, the reading, the thinking and the drawing that she does. It is a small window into the creative process of a great artist under 'ideal' conditions - solitude, no distractions, nothing to dilute the flow of ideas and words.

All four sections of the book highlight slightly different aspects of Le Guin the wordsmith - the thinker, the lover of literature, the critic, the artist, while serving to demonstrate the truth of the volume's title - words are her matter, and her opinions and insights are, as always, well worth reading and thinking on.

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