Ursula K. Le Guin on the books that meant the most to her
Ursula K. Le Guin died Monday afternoon at the age of 88, in her home in Portland, Oregon. The author of popular science fiction and fantasy broke new ground in the genres, introducing a literary sensibility and a feminist bent, and was a huge influence on the likes of Salman Rushdie and Neil Gaiman.
Le Guin remained an active writer, reader, and thinker until her death. Just last month, she spoke with EW about the books that meant the most to her in her life, a conversation pegged to the release of her final book, the wonderful essay collection No Time to Spare, available here. In one of the last interviews she ever gave, Le Guin revealed her literary hero, her fictional crush, her favorites books, and much more. It’s a lovely insight into Le Guin’s love of literature, and a beautifully appropriate reflection from the author on a lifetime of reading.
Read on below.
Note: This interview originally appeared in the Dec. 8 issue of EW.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your favorite book as a child?
URSULA K. LE GUIN: I was a bookworm. I ate books. I read so many, with so much pleasure, there’s no way I could pick a favorite.
Was there an illicit book that you had to sneak growing up?
When I was a teenager, I noticed a sex manual in the bookcase in an apartment we were renting, but when I went looking for it, it was gone. After a few years, I asked my father if he’d hidden it, and he said yes. I was curious, because he wasn’t the censor type. I asked him why, and he said, “It was so inaccurate!”
What books have you read over and over again?
Dozens. From Alice in Wonderland to Black Beauty, from The Jungle Book to Kim, from Pride and Prejudice to Jane Eyre to Little Dorrit to To the Lighthouse. And poets: Shelley, Keats, A.E. Housman, T.S. Eliot, Robinson Jeffers…
What book might people be surprised to learn you love?
I’ve discovered that when I talk about Uncle Tom’s Cabin, people react like I was praising some white-supremacist manifesto. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote her big, warmhearted novel out of a passionate desire for social and racial justice, and Abraham Lincoln wasn’t far wrong when he called her “the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”
What book cemented you as a writer?
I don’t know how to answer this question. I started reading and writing at 5 and have never stopped since. I guess everything I have read has influenced me, one way or another, as a person and therefore as a writer. Or maybe I just never got cemented.
Is there a book that changed your life?
Maybe the question should be: Is there a book that didn’t change your life? Reading a book is an experience, and every experience changes your life, a little bit or a lot.
Who is your literary hero?
Yuri, in Doctor Zhivago. But I think that’s partly because the author, Boris Pasternak, is a literary hero to me, for his quiet, subtle absolute resistance to tyranny.
Is there a book you wish you had written?
Any of Grace Paley’s books. But I don’t wish I had written anybody else’s books; I just wish I was more like Grace Paley.
What’s the last book that made you laugh? What’s the last book that made you cry?
I laughed out loud at Joann Sfar’s graphic novel The Rabbi’s Cat. I always cry at the end of The Lord of the Rings when Sam says, “Well, I’m back.”
Who is your literary crush?
I have never got over Fitzwilliam Darcy, and I never will.
Have you ever written something that now makes you cringe?
I wrote a novel in my 20s that by the time I was 50 made me cringe right down into my socks. I made a funeral pyre for it, and apologized to it and my younger self, and burned it.
What are you reading now?
Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (even better the second time), and then after that I need to reread Eleanor Arnason’s Ring of Swords to write an intro for a new edition (about time, too), and then, oh well, never mind, I don’t think I’ll run out of books to read, and reread, anytime soon.