This year, for the first time ever, I read a lot of books by a single author. I decided to try this at the end of 2018, inspired in part by my husband Dan, who often reads multiple books by one person, and also by my friend Christian Kiefer, who has one of the best literary Twitter accounts out there and posted a lot about reading through the oeuvre of James Baldwin.
I should do that, I thought. Read all of James Baldwin, yes. But more generally, read a lot of one particular writer. I decided I’d pick someone and spend a year reading as much as I could of that person’s work.
My criteria: An author no longer living. Someone who wrote at least ten books. Someone I’m not already fairly familiar with. (So no Dickens, Austen, Brontë, Brontë—or Brontë.) Someone whose work I really should be familiar with. And someone I also want to be more familiar with.
This didn’t do much to narrow down the candidates, but then I read this wonderful interview David Naimon did with Ursula K. Le Guin, which appeared in the March/April 2017 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle. I was, as usual, many months behind in my periodicals reading, and Le Guin was gone by the time I caught up with the interview. But now I had my 2019 author.
The only Le Guin I’d ever read was her famous and wonderfully chilling short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” which I’d even taught a few times. Somehow I’d never managed to read anything else. It was time to fix that.
By the end of the year, I’ll have read 13 books by Le Guin. They’re listed at the end (and will show up again in my next blog post, which will be a round-up of all of the books Dan and I read in 2019).
I feel like I should now offer some deep literary insights, but I have to confess I read through most of these books with heedless pleasure, making few marginal notes, collecting few observations for blog-writing purposes.
If I do have a general takeaway, it’s about experiencing, again and again, the pleasures of the direct, plain-speaking sentence that says something true. There’s that famous line from The Left Hand of Darkness, of course:
- “The king was pregnant.”
Le Guin’s writing is filled with such sentences. The kind that make you sit up and say, Well! And then, Of course. Here are a few others, in no particular order:
- “He was very weary; the day had been long, and full of dragons.” (The Farthest Shore)
- “Porlock distilled something in his laboratory and drank it all by himself.” (“Vaster than Empires and More Slow,” The Wind’s Twelve Quarters)
- “I think that there would be no cars or helicopters in and above the streets; this follows from the fact that the people of Omelas are happy people.” (“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” The Wind’s Twelve Quarters)
- “She liked the young, and there was always something to learn from a foreigner, but she was tired of new faces, and tired of being on view.” (“The Day Before the Revolution,” The Wind’s Twelve Quarters)
- “He would not have fought for less than the truth, but it was the fighting he had loved, better than the truth.” (The Dispossessed)
- “There are people of inherent authority; some emperors actually have new clothes.” (The Dispossessed)
- “For magic consists in this, the true naming of a thing.” (A Wizard of Earthsea)
I can now claim some familiarity with Le Guin’s body of work, and I think I’m a better person for it. I want to be able to say that of a few other writers and to be similarly improved. So I’m doing this again next year, with Toni Morrison. I’m not as unfamiliar with her work. But by the end of 2020, I hope to have read—or re-read—all of her novels.
I’m interested to know how other people decide what to read. Does anyone else choose a different writer to read a lot—or all?—of in a given year?
The Ursula K. Le Guin books I read in 2019 (in reading order):
- A Wizard of Earthsea
- The Tombs of Atuan
- The Farthest Shore
- The Left Hand of Darkness
- The Dispossessed
- The Lathe of Heaven
- The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (short stories)
- No Time to Spare (essays)
- Catwings (children’s books)
- The Word for World is Forest
- Finding My Elegy: New & Selected Poems
- Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story
What a wonderful idea and project, to sink deeply into the work of one author! As I mentioned in my FB comment I have loved her work since I first read it in my 20’s, especially the Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, and The Word For World is Forest. I reread The Dispossessed this year and it doesn’t hold up quite as well as TLFOD, but she has an incredible ability to imagine a whole world that flows from the questions she is asking. (“What if there was a world where…?”)
I met her many years ago at a dinner after a speaking engagement; in the spirit of feminism she had just completed an experiment. She actually rewrote “The Left Hand of Darkness” substituting the pronoun “she” for every “he” used as a generic pronoun. She said it became an entirely different book!
Sorry for the late response, Susan! and thank you so much for reading & commenting.
I’d read also that LeGuin later regretted using the “generic he/him/his” in LHOD, and yes, I can imagine how differently it would read if the pronouns had been she/her/hers. It’s impossible to read he/him/his about a character and *not* picture a man in one’s head, even when you’re explicitly told that gender doesn’t operate in the same way in this world.
I’m so envious that you got to meet her! What an extraordinary human being she was.
Well-timed; Chaucer Doth Tweet mentioned Le Guin a couple of times today, including a Chaucerized version of a poem from The Left Hand of Darkness.
I read my first Le Guin this year, too – one of her stories is in BASS 2019. It probably wasn’t representative, so I’m thinking I need to read one of her more classic works. What would you recommend for a first-time reader? One of my blog readers mentioned she did a translation of Lao Tzu, which would be interesting, but I would like to get some sense of her fiction as well.
Glad to see you blogging again!
Thank you, Karen! My favorite Le Guin was indeed The Left Hand of Darkness. The complex world(s) she conjures, the messy politics, the fascinating gender fluidity, and in the middle of all of that, a moving story about an unlikely friendship & an epic journey. I also found the Earthsea books quite delightful. I haven’t read her Lao Tzu; I’m a little skeptical of “translators” who aren’t scholars of the language from which they’re translating (I say this despite dabbling in some translation myself).