When I read about the death of Ursula K Le Guin in the New York Times, at the end of January, I thought how agreeable she sounded, remembered that I hadn’t found her books accessible when I first encountered them as an adolescent, for whatever reason, and decided to try reading one of them again.
It isn’t strange, but a little regrettable how an artist’s stock can go up when they die. It’s only that so many people have that same reaction– being reminded of something they’ve missed, finding new or renewed interest in a body of work that, with one inevitable event, has become a life’s work. The regret is that the artist doesn’t get to feel the appreciation.
Her first five books found resonance with me just now, having content about strangers, aliens living in foreign lands, because I am. After so many years in the country of my birth now living far away in what is on one hand much alike– an urban economy connected and woven into global commerce and trade– and on the other hand completely foreign in language, cultural expectations, experience, and values.
The fifth book, The Dispossessed, felt to me like a classic work on a par with the best of the classics. I feel amazed that it isn’t better known and more talked about. I feel amazed that it isn’t part of the cultural curriculum that we consider foundational for the well educated. Or perhaps it is, and I haven’t been, and I’m just getting around to it.
When it was published in 1974 it was called a utopian novel. It was a book about an experimental, anarchistic society, its successes and shortcomings, and its relationship to the worlds around it.
It reads to me, personally, now, as a book whose major theme is not the societies themselves or their relationships (of which this book describes many) but rather the relationship of the individual to society. Some think of Ayn Rand as owning that territory. The Dispossessed reminds me of The Fountainhead. I now think that she shares it. This book, being outside of any time or place in human experience, beyond the limits of a human city in a plausible time, demonstrates the relationship of the individual to society at the intersection of multiple worlds, civilizations, and governments.
For this reason it has lasting relevance and importance above parity with 1984 or Animal Farm, Catcher in the Rye or Fahrenheit 451 – all books that were part of the curriculum when I was young. We weren’t asked to consume Ayn Rand or Thomas Moore. Ursula K Le Guin was new then.
The relationship of the individual to society, the tensions around realization of individual potentials within the surround of their community, culture, economy, and government are forever, it seems to me, in flux and in tension.
How can a poor kid who’s smart contribute and find traction in an area that is dominated by those more privileged and perhaps, as often happens, insular? How does an individual with potential open up a group who has captured an area of discourse or commerce and established what they consider to be a norm? How does a person transcend their sex, race, economic status, language, education, or whatever attributes we perceive to constitute an “other”? How does a person find work that produces income while realizing the best expression of what they are, or potentially might be? How does a society support and encourage the very difficult work of sitting down and actually working, vs. getting by, or getting along, or fitting in? How do we help people who, facing their work, the incredible monster that it is, fall short, fail, fear, as we all do, give up, or fall into addiction or despair or depression?
These are to me questions of the greatest importance and measure of the success of a society. And that’s why I so much liked Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed.