Book: No Time To Spare by Ursula K. Le Guin (2017)
Age/Genre: Adult Non-Fiction, Memoir
Before the local libraries closed in order to enact safe physical distancing procedures, I decided to stock up on books from authors I’ve been wanting to explore more. After all, I’ve got more time than usual to read: library book due dates are extended until June, and my social plans have been cancelled. I knew I wanted to read something by Ursula K. Le Guin, but I wasn’t sure what, and with courier systems on pause, I was limited to what was currently checked-in at the branch where my husband works. I went to my good friend Electric Literature, because they have several articles about Le Guin and her works. I started reading a piece and got about halfway through before I realized it was an excerpt from Le Guin’s No Time to Spare. I knew this was what I had been looking for, and it happened to be available for me to check out!
No Time to Spare is a collection of posts from Le Guin’s blog. Dates on the posts range from 2010 to 2014, and are sorted into vaguely themed sections. Le Guin died in 2018, and I’m not sure how much she had to do with the organization of the book, but the individual pieces are all her.
This collection is split into four sections:
“Part One: Going Over Eighty” explores Le Guin’s thoughts on aging and life in old age.
“Part Two: The Lit Biz” discusses some of Le Guin’s ponderings on her career and the literature industry.
“Part Three: Trying to Make Sense of It” has a lot of political pieces.
“Part Four: Rewards” is full of reflections on art and Le Guin’s travels.
Between these sections are pieces under the heading “The Annals of Pard,” where Le Guin shares stories about her playful, mouse-terrorizing cat, Pard. I love how pet stories give such a succinct look into a person’s daily life. I do recommend the poem she wrote for the mouse her cat killed, which can be found here.
Le Guin came somewhat late to the blog game, both in blogging’s lifespan and her own. In “A Note at the Beginning,” published on the blog in October 2010 and acting as an introduction to the book, Le Guin explains why she had been hesitant to start a blog. She didn’t like the idea of having to respond to people’s comments and interact with strangers on the Internet. But after reading José Saramgo’s blogs, published as The Notebooks, and also written in his elder years, Le Guin was inspired and decided to give the platform a go. Her short introduction includes one of my favorite tendencies of Le Guin’s, which is that she often includes trivial facts about the words she uses. Did you know that the word “essay” can mean trials/attempts/efforts? Well, now you do, and that certainly isn’t the only thing to learn from these essays/blog posts.
As for the title of the collection, that is addressed in the first essay following the introduction, “In your Spare Time.” Le Guin, in a move I find extremely relatable, nitpicks a graduate survey from her (sort of) Alma Mater. (Le Guin graduated from Radcliffe in 1951, which was associated with, but not technically part of Harvard at the time because…sexism. The survey was sent out by Harvard.) For the question regarding how your grandchildren have done in life, Le Guin skips over the obvious fact that this question assumes grandchildren as a reality everyone experiences, and focuses on the fact that her youngest grandchild is four at the time of writing, and given that fact, there isn’t too much to really report. When they ask about what issues you believe have potential to improve life for future generations, Le Guin shines. She points out that “economic stability and growth for the U.S.” should not be one option, since growth and stability do not coincide. She questions the lack of environmental concerns, international politics, and human rights and the focus on typically right-wing concerns like “‘effective’ immigration policies,” terrorism, and “the exportation of democracy.” The callouts in this piece are brief but scathing. When asked if she’s living out her secret desires, Le Guin confesses that she has none, her desires are flagrant. But the real kicker for Le Guin, and thus the crux of the piece (and the heart of this book), is the list of options for how she fills her “spare time.” Remember, this is a survey for people in at least their 70s, more commonly 80s and above. So when the 27-item list includes things like “golf,” “shopping,” “tv,” and an all encompassing “creative activities (paint, write, photograph, etc),” Le Guin questions the idea of “spare time” for people who are very likely past the career phase of their lives. If the opposite of spare time is occupied time, then there is no spare time, because all of our time is technically occupied. I love this concept, because it encourages prioritizing the things you want to do, whether they’re seen as “productive” or not. I don’t do this blog in my spare time. I make time to work on it. And looking at hobbies that way is empowering and inspiring to me.
In “Papa H,” Le Guin muses about how Homer’s two works were the two basic fantasy stories, The War and The Journey. She speculates that Homer outwits most authors who write “The War” because he didn’t take sides. The Trojan war is not “Good vs. Evil.” Both sides are presented as flawed, as human, and as possessing some nobility and morality. So the story is able to be truly tragic. She discusses how the Indian epic, The Mahabharata, also explores heroes on all sides, but does so in dazzling fantasy rather than the stark realism of the war in The Iliad. Le Guin’s analysis is light-hearted and accessible, while still being thought-provoking and meaningful. I admit though, my favorite part of this essay is probably the title.
Le Guin does talk about politics a bit, but she doesn’t participate in partisan name calling or ranting against specific politicians. Her posts rather analyze how we engage in politics. She has two different essays about the definition of the word “belief” and how it is often falsely applied to science as a way to pit science and religion against one another. She argues that you don’t “believe” in evolution. You either accept the premise of the theory, or you don’t. Either way, that acceptance is based on facts, where belief is not. She also has an essay where she speculates on whether anger can be useful or not, particularly in politics. This piece was one that I felt had the potential to seem like a lecture, but ended up just being Le Guin grappling with her thoughts and not coming to a conclusion. Seeing the thought processes of someone so measured and intentional is interesting, even if you’re not sure you agree. In fact, there were many moments where I didn’t agree with Le Guin, but I still enjoyed her perspective.
There are parts of this book where I felt that Le Guin got a little preachy, but she never did so in an overly righteous way. She shares her opinions without presenting them as infallible. These blog posts are the writings of a cranky old woman, and they don’t pretend to be anything else. But this particular cranky old woman is very smart, very careful with her words, and very thoughtful in her analyses and accusations. She’s also lived a life full of intriguing adventures and experiences. I found this collection to be motivating, without propping Le Guin up as an idol or descending into inspiration-porn. I think Le Guin’s writing is partially how she addressed the injustices of life without allowing them to get her down. She analyzed them, turned that analysis into amazing illustrative fiction, and shared that fiction with the world. Consider me inspired.
If you’re interested, you can still access Le Guin’s blog here. The posts that were selected for this collection are not viewable, but the site claims they’ll be back someday, and some exist in other places online (like the Electric Literature post I mentioned earlier).