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‘No Time to Spare’ review: Ursula K. Le Guin, at 88, muses on aging, art and more

Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin Photo Credit: Marion Wood Kolisch

NO TIME TO SPARE: Thinking About What Matters, by Ursula K. Le Guin. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 215 pp., $22.

The only thing better than accomplishment, American culture implies, is accomplishment at a young age. Youth — or at least the appearance of it — is a most valuable possession. “In our increasingly unstable, future-oriented, technology-driven society,” observes Ursula K. Le Guin, “the young are often the ones who show the way, who teach their elders what to do.”

In “No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters,” Le Guin shows that elders have plenty to teach.

The essays that compose Le Guin’s latest book first appeared as blog posts on her website. Though she questions technological advances, the author, 88 — a recipient of Hugo and Nebula awards, a Newbery Medal and the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters — is neither a Luddite nor a pessimist. Instead, Le Guin shares her thoughts on aging and issues such as gender inequality and capitalism, that have often framed her vast and varied body of work — which includes the “Earthsea” fantasy series, the “Catwings” children’s books, the novel “The Left Hand of Darkness” and a slew of poetry, short stories and essays. The new book is a well-selected record of her electronic musings and a masterful lesson on the importance of the practice of writing.

Le Guin finds inspiration in the everyday and makes it sparkle with her prose. A Harvard alumni questionnaire mailed to her prompts Le Guin to express concern that her generation has ruined the environment for her grandchildren and reflect on the reality that, as an octogenarian, she hasn’t much time left. “The opposite of spare time is, I guess, occupied time,” she writes. “In my case I still don’t know what spare time is because all my time is occupied. It always has been, and it is now. It’s occupied by living.” Readers, in turn, are left considering what occupies their time. Yet despite the clock that seems to tick at each turn of the page, Le Guin opts for the scenic route, journeying toward significant observations, making poignant pit stops along the way.

In the tender “Someone Named Delores,” Le Guin expertly uses an awkward sentence in a Zadie Smith story as a springboard to think about class, capitalism, and, most importantly, the death of her friend Delores. Le Guin, ever self-reflective, divulges her reluctance to reveal that Delores was also her employee because doing so would be an admission of a hierarchy in their relationship. “Democracy, by strenuously denying the fact of inequality, does enable us, to a surprising extent, to act as if it didn’t exist; but it does exist, and we know it,” Le Guin observes. “So our job,” she continues, “is to keep the inequity of power as small as possible, and refuse to let our common humanity be reduced, however slightly, even by a careless word, by an assertion of unequal worth.” Le Guin, in step with her legacy, challenges us to reconsider what we automatically accept.

Le Guin provides respite from the more serious topics with humorous tales of Pard, a cat she adopted in 2010. But what resonates throughout “No Time to Spare” is Le Guin’s unwavering belief in the power of art — literature in particular — as the vehicle to imagine an alternative to our current reality. “We will need writers who remember freedom,” Le Guin told the audience at the 2014 National Book Awards. “No Time to Spare” will leave readers hoping that Le Guin is given a bit more time to share her observations — on aging, art, our world — and to remind us of things we mustn’t forget.

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