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Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and…

Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000-2016 with A… (2016)

by Ursula K. Le Guin

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A nice compendium of non-fiction pieces. In her book reviews, Le Guin is always a fair and perceptive judge, though I felt there was too much plot exposition in some of them. The miscellaneous essays/speeches are mostly great, especially the searing piece on her pre-Roe-vs-Wade abortion, and the charming essay on the strange house she grew up in and its architect. The forewords introduced me to a few books I like the look of and a few I don't but it's hard to read them without having the book itself to hand. The last bit, an account of a week at a women-only writers' retreat off the coast of Washington, is pretty dreary but very short. ( )
  yarb | Oct 12, 2018 |
It was a pleasure discovering this selection of nonfiction (2000-2016) by Ursula K. LeGuin. Her writing is elegant and wonderfully insightful. Both the book reviews and book introductions give one much to digest and authors to anticipate. There is an underlying trace of bitterness regarding authors neglected through the limits of current publishing. ( )
  MM_Jones | Dec 20, 2017 |

I found this collection of essays full of wisdom and wit, often making fun of people who deserve it. It made me feel like I was in conversation with a vastly intelligent and immensely compassionate old friend. ( )
  nwhyte | Nov 18, 2017 |
Excellent insight into the creative process of writing by the author of "The Word for World is Forest," and "Left Hand of Darkness." Superb inspiration for writers and for women. ( )
  JoBass | Oct 19, 2017 |
This volume collects various bits and bobs of Ursula K. Le Guin's nonfiction writing from the last sixteen years, divided into four different sections: talks and essays of various sorts, introductions to republications of books, book reviews, and a journal from a week Le Guin spent at a rural writer's retreat.

The speeches and other essays are good, if an odd and inconsistent miscellany, ranging from two quick pages on Le Guin's experience getting an abortion before Roe v. Wade, to six pages about invented languages in fiction, to seven pages about genre fiction, to fifteen pages about the architect of the house she grew up in. What you get out of these will probably depend on your interest in the topics: I found that fifteen pages about an architect was more than I cared to read, for example, but loved Le Guin's various thoughts on genre. She's not a big fan of literary writers who borrow from speculative fiction at the same time they condescend about it, and this parody of their discourse was probably one of my favorite bits of the book:

my book
Searoad [...] makes ironic use of some realist tropes—but of course I don't write Re-Fi [...]. Realism is for lazy-minded, semi-educated people whose atrophied imagination allows them only the most limited and conventional subject matter. Re-Fi is a repetitive genre written by unimaginative hacks who rely on mere mimesis. If they had any self-respect they'd be writing memoir, but they're too lazy to fact-check. Of course I never read Re-Fi. But the kids keep bringing home these garish realistic novels and talking about them, so I know that it's an incredibly narrow genre, completely centered on one species, full of worn-out clichés and predictable situations—the quest for the father, mother-bashing, obsessive male lust, dysfunctional suburban families, etc., etc. All it's good for is being made into mass-market movies.

The forewords, on the other hand, were tough going at times; if I've learned anything from reading this book and Neil Gaiman's The View from the Cheap Seats, it's that forewords stand on their own somewhat awkwardly, being designed to prime you to read a book you're not actually about to read. Some were interesting enough that I marked the books down to check out later, but I was relieved when I made it through them all.

The book reviews, though, made the whole book worth it. Le Guin is an incisive and intelligent reviewer, and I'd read one or two of these in The Guardian on-line, but most of them were new to me. Le Guin is skilled at identifying what kind of genre a work is operating in, and using that to say something interesting about the book. A good review should not only give you a sense of the work, but it should also say something that goes beyond the book-- without going so far beyond the book as to leave it behind-- and Le Guin achieves all that in these excellent little bits of criticism. She left me with a number of books I wanted to read because she made them sound good, ones she made me know I did not want to read, and ones I wanted to read because it sounded like they failed in interesting ways.

The journal was cute if somewhat insubstantial; despite being "of a writer's week" it's less about writing and more about bits of nature Le Guin notices at the retreat. I did like her observations about the trails at the retreat, and the behavior of rabbits.
2 vote Stevil2001 | Jun 24, 2017 |
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The Mind Is Still

The mind is still. The gallant books of lies
are never quite enough.
Ideas are a whirl of mazy flies
     over the pigs' trough.

Words are my matter. I have chipped one stone
for thirty years and still it is not done,
that image of the thing I cannot see.
I cannot finish it and set it free,
     transformed to energy.

I chip and stutter but I do not sing
the truth, like any bird.
Daily I come to Judgment stammering
     the same half-word.

So what's the matter? I can understand
that stone is heavy in the hand.
Ideas flit like flies above the swill.
I crowd with other pigs to get my fill.
     The mind is still.

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I seldom have as much pleasure in reading nonfiction as I do in a poem or a story.
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This collection of Ursula K. Le Guin's recent talks, essays, introductions is the best manual we have for exploring the worlds explored in recent fiction; the most useful guide to the country we're visiting, life.

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