A copy of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Words Are My Matter was damaged at my place of employment, and I was gifted a copy. After casually leafing through this book I looked up and noticed two hours had gone by! In the introduction Le Guin professes that she much prefers poetry and fiction to essays or analytical texts, and yet here she is with a sharp analysis and profound cultural memory. I find this collection of work to be a binding of her moral beliefs tucked in between speeches, book reviews, and journal entries. She often speaks about how and what she believes children should be taught, in and out of school. Her feminism and anti capitalist beliefs are beacons carried, always always, by her love of the written word.
In the first essay entitled “The Operating Instructions” she speaks of the importance of imagination, not as a commodity to be harvested for financial gain or professional success, but as a vital ingredient of human education. She argues that the growth of our capacity for language and the use of words are necessities of human life. To use language properly is to strengthen our imaginative faculty, and thus strengthen our humanity. Le Guin tells us that our humanity lies in our ability to imagine and create, and that this capacity is where we find a home. Home, for Le Guin, is not external but a place, a mental state, that we create for ourselves, in ourselves.
At the same time, Le Guin reminds us that our internal creative home does not exist as an island. No human exists without help, without others. We find our home reinforced by the things and people, dead or alive who light our fire, who feel like kin. I understand when Le Guin tells me that these sources of light and inspiration “may be nothing but words printed on paper, ghosts of voices, shadows of minds”. Here she describes the moment when a piece of art, a book, a thought from some other source still feels like a creation of your own mind, a place you belong. It is these sources that are the foundation we build ourselves from, feeling more connected (even with the advent of internet communication), than we thought possible in our youth.
Le Guin provides us with an optimism which can only come from a dedicated reader. She sees the changes in society, politics, technology, and gives us a view of these changes in which the written word and the connection it brings is inherent in the human condition. We, as humans, as readers, cannot survive without books, without writers. The written word, and those dedicated to it must be wary of those who expect us to waste our imaginations on reading the operating instructions in the manual of mindless, misogynist, capitalism.