Friday 1 December 2017

Review: No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters

No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

'No Time To Spare' is a compilation of blog posts written from Le Guin's blog between 2010 and 2016. I am not much of a non-fiction writer myself, but Le Guin is a particular favourite of mine, and I haven't read any non-fiction before so was eager to snap this up. I received a free copy from NetGalley; all thoughts and opinions are my own.

Perhaps if I had known that these were originally published on Le Guin's blog, I would have been less enthusiastic about reading this; however, not knowing I immediately wanted to read her words, and I'm glad I did. Reading these in a book format (albeit a ebook format - I would much rather have a physical copy) is very different to a blog. Le Guin herself touches on this in one her short writings ('A Note at the Beginning') where she was inspired by Jose Saramango's blogs (which, of course, I will now have to find some time to read.) I like her idea of a blog, borrowed from Saramango, where she doesn't have to constantly have a conversation below the post with readers. She can write something and that been the entirety of it. As someone who writes myself, I can understand the frightening nature of blogs - and I've grown up with them! (Maybe it's not a good thing that I can relate more to an octogenarian than someone like me in their twenties...)

Many of the extracts focus on ageing: what it feels like to be old, and the titular writing: 'In Your 'never had a job to retire from.' Writing is a calling, a thing of love, to be nurtured. What is this spare time? All her time is spent in doing something - whether it be writing a blog post, playing with her cat Pard, replying to her fan-mail (there's an enjoyable piece of writing on that; my advice is - don't really bother unless you're a small child and you aren't using a spell checker. That's the kind of fan-mail she enjoys the most), or staring into space. All her time is full. This way of looking at life is very kind; that is one thing that springs from these pages - Le Guin is kind. Not just in a grandmotherly, let's-look-out-for-the-children or even a Democrat we-need-to-do-something-to-sort-out-this-planet-and-this-gargantuam-mess-we've-got-into way. No, a simple pure kindness. It's something that can only be felt; in these very personal writings, Le Guin bears a little of her soul for us to see, and I am eternally enchanted.
Spare Time.' With wit, but with astonishing grace and humbleness, Le Guin explains that for her in her ninetieth years, there is no such thing as 'spare time.' And there never has been. She says she

Her writing about ageing is very moving. That's a very simple word - moving - but I cannot find a more suitable one, and perhaps should stop trying. In a writing of 2013 called 'The Diminished Thing' she addresses the American bent towards positive thinking. 'What's wrong with positive thinking?' you may ask. Well, Le Guin puts it very succinctly, very aptly. 'Encouragement by denial, however well-meaning, backfires... To tell me my old age doesn't exist is to tell me I don't exist. Erase my age, you erase my life - me.' What a way with words she has. She wishes to be respected as an 'elder' but she also encourages the respect of young people; both of which we appear to losing in modern day society.

Although some of her topics are vast, the way Le Guin writes is deeply personal. I feel like I 'know' her through these writings. This is, of course, nonsense, as Le Guin herself says when talking about receiving fan-mail. But she offers up her writings in a generous, unassuming way for us to take and do with what we will. Of course, I don't know Le Guin. I know some more about her life as it is now, I know quite a lot more about her cat, Pard (there's a lovely section dedicated to him called 'The Annals of Pard' and a very true-feeling writing about choosing a cat), but I do not know her. She is not my friend. Yet, the way she has written it is to make one feel as though you would like to be.

Other topics she covers include: the liberal use of two particular swear words that seem to have become a shortcut, but Le Guin unpicks them, their origins and their use - finding them to have more meaning than I think of when I read them in a novel. I will certainly think twice the next time I across either (which is most likely to be the next modern novel I read.) There's an interesting section 'debunking' narrative gift and its connection, or not, to literary quality, and its connection, or not, to good storytelling. I loved her piece about fantasy writing and the fear of unknown in 'It Doesn't Have to Be the Way It Is.' ('There really is nothing to fear in fantasy unless you are afraid of the freedom of uncertainty.'); her thoughts on utopia and dystopia ('Utopiyin, Utopiyang'); the way the President talks to the American people, about their worth and whether they were worthy of being asked difficult things ('Lying It All Away'), involving the first televised broadcast from the White House; the nature of growing up, muddled up with misquotations ('The Inner Child and the Nude Politician')... I could go on and on. I don't think there was a single writing here that didn't sing to me in some way. I want to go away and reread these short pieces and let them sit in my soul and speak to me.

One interesting thing I noticed was how surprised I was by how American Le Guin is; of course I shouldn't have been, but when we read the fiction of a fantasy/sci-fi writer it can transcend boundaries. So, rather stupidly, I was caught off guard by how American her 'natural' writing style is. She writes of 'The Great American Novel' and an author's quest for it (not something she has time for), and it isn't something I was really aware of; however, during reading this, I heard a programme on Radio 4 ('Open Book') which spoke to an American about that very subject. Eerie stuff. Le Guin's opinion on 'TGAN and TGOW' has changed over the last year (this piece was written in 2011) - from Huckleberry Finn (for all its faults) to The Grapes of Wrath (for all its faults) (Although she still dismisses the general idea: 'Art is not a horse race. Literature is not the Olympics.') And I, an ignorant English girl, have read neither (although works by the same authors). There were many occasions where I stopped and scribbled down a book I would like to read by way of her roundabout recommendation.

Most of all, I wanted to reread Le Guin's own books; the books where it all started, in my mind at
least (I'm not sure of the publication dates). The Wizard of Earthsea. Tehanu. All my well-loved
characters from childhood that deserve another visit. And they will get one. (Once I've finished the deluge of books I have to read to review...)

Despite knowing that fan-mail from adults that has correct punctuation and none of the charm that children's misspellings and mistakes, I do feel drawn to write to Le Guin now - hand-written, pen on paper writing. She has, for me, opened up her soul, and I crave to receive a tiny acknowledgement back. But - as she rightly says - this is not the job of the author; the author writes and the reader takes whatever meaning they want from it. 'Tell me what it means... That's not my job, honey. That's your job.' But I don't want to write and ask her what anything means. I want to write to her and feel that spark of human connection; the resonance that one feels with someone although I know it can never be reciprocal. (Although in my head, I can imagine discussing Hopkins' 'The Windhover' which she mentions in 'Readers' Questions', the sheer absurdity of proverbs mentioned in 'Having My Cake' (which also provided some information on Charles Darwin I didn't know), talking about Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey...)

Still, 'No Time To Spare' has made me want to connect to Le Guin while - how do I say this delicately - while I still can. She has touched me in a way that non-fiction writers generally do not. I cannot rate this book more highly. For this small insight into such a great mind, we are truly blessed.

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