Ursula K. Le Guin, whom I’m going to call the greatest writer of all time, passed away on Monday. I don’t usually cry when people I’ve never met died, but I cried when I read that sad news. Le Guin’s work touched me in so many ways—too many to share them all here. But there are three that stand out, and I’ll share those. Share yours in the comments!
My family wasn’t rich, but one thing I never lacked was reading material. Weekly trips to the library and a plethora of magazine subscriptions kept me in books and stories. We got lots of great magazines: Highlights for Kids, American Girl, some sort of crafty activity magazine, Zoobooks, a few comics. But my absolute favorites were Spider and Cricket, because they published actual short stories.
In one of these two (I can’t remember which one), I read a story called Catwings. I couldn’t get enough of it. Every issue I’d check first to see if there was a new Catwings story. At the time, I had no conception that the author was a famous sci-fi writer named Ursula K. Le Guin. I just knew it was a good story and I cared about the characters. Those little stories about cats who could fly stuck with me. Of course that’s not the only story from my childhood that stuck with me (there’s Narnia, and The BFG, and Leo Lionni’s picture books about mice, and Dr. Seuss, and Big Red, and Nancy Drew, and too many more to name them all), but it’s one that stuck out even among all the others. I remember reading the story “Jane on Her Own” and being scared for Jane, but also exhilarated that she could go have her own adventures, away from her family. If Jane could, then so could I! Years and years later, I stumbled on a Catwings book in a Barnes & Noble and was delighted—though not surprised—to discover Le Guin was the author.
2. The Left Hand of Darkness
In high school I went to every used book sale within a 25-mile radius of my home. At one of these, I picked up a paperback copy of The Left Hand of Darkness for 50 cents. It was an edition from the ’70s, with yellowed pages and a faded cover. I’d heard Le Guin’s name mentioned over and over in sci-fi circles, so I took it upon myself to read it. The summer between high school and college, I read The Left Hand of Darkness, and it changed how I viewed not just the world, but the very concepts of “truth” and storytelling.
As a conservative Christian kid, I had some pretty messed up views on gender. But even then, patriarchal norms chaffed against my sense of independence (thanks, books!) and solid knowledge that I was just as good as any man (thanks, Mom and Dad!). The Left Hand of Darkness confirmed what I already felt: it was all a construct. It didn’t have to be that way. And it was, then, I think, that I began to decide it wouldn’t be that way, not for me. No one was going to tell me what I could or couldn’t accomplish. No one was going to tell me what I was worth. And people have tried—oh, they’ve tried—but fuck them. I’m living the life I want to live, not the life society tells me I should want.
And something else. In the introduction to that edition of the novel, Le Guin wrote a beautiful essay about truth. In it, she writes, “But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.” When I read those words, I understood what it means to tell stories. I understood why stories are so important to me, why I want to read them and write them. I understood that “truth,” too, is its own construct (not to be confused with facts). And that—that’s when I really became a writer.
3. Always Coming Home
By the time I read Always Coming Home I already counted Le Guin as one of my favorite authors. After I read Always Coming Home, she moved right up the list to number one, and I seriously doubt anyone could replace her. I wrote an essay about why this is her greatest book, and you can read it on Monday when it comes out (I’ll try to remember to post a link here when it does). But that essay leaves out the personal impact this book had on me.
Always Coming Home is a fictional anthropological study of an animistic society living in a futurist California that’s been destroyed and reclaimed. This isn’t just a novel—it’s a guidebook for how to live without capitalism, without patriarchy, without hate, without fear. It’s utopia, but utopia that could actually exist if only we weren’t so hell-bent on profits, greed, and destruction.
Reading this book caused me to make real changes in my way of life. It got me thinking about the intersections of the urban world and the natural world. It got me thinking about healing. It got me thinking about spirituality, and what that even meant. It got me thinking about being a whole person. I consider Always Coming Home to be my bible—my guide for living a meaningful, connected, creative life. I don’t follow it slavishly (Le Guin would hate that), but it’s my inspiration. My North Star. It reminds me that all these things—life, creativity, nature, everything—is an ongoing process. The world will keep turning long after I’m gone. I am only a single part in this great ecosystem, but that doesn’t mean I am unimportant. I have something to offer, and so do you. I’ll be happy if my gifts to the world equal half of what Le Guin’s were to me.
Rest in peace, Grandmother.