'No Time to Spare' is an enjoyable visit with literary giant Ursula Le Guin (and her cat)

Le Guin reflects on the value of time, when simply living life, visiting with friends and family, grocery shopping, and writing, fills each and every day.

No Time to Spare By Ursula K. Le Guin Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 240 pp.

No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters is a pleasing read and an engaging look behind the curtain, into the life and mind of award-winning author Ursula Le Guin.

LeGuin, of course, is a national treasure. As one of America’s leading science fiction writers (although she has said that she prefers to be simply known as a novelist), LeGuin has won multiple Hugo and Nebula awards, and too many other literary prizes to be able to list them all here. In 2014, the National Book Association gave her the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

Today, at the age of 88, LeGuin no longer writes fiction. But she does blog. (Her blogging habit was inspired, she tells us, when she read blogs that Nobel-laureate José Saramago wrote while in his 80s). “No Time to Spare” is a collection of Le Guin’s blogs, featuring witty and insightful commentary on subjects ranging from art and literature to politics and felines.

The title essay explains why LeGuin found it hard to respond to an alumni survey she received from her alma mater, Harvard University. The survey asked Le Guin to state what she does with her spare time. Le Guin asks how it is possible to have spare time when simply living life, visiting with friends and family, grocery shopping, and writing fill each and every day.

“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.”

Next she tackles old age – an ambitious task but one that she takes on with grace and humor.

Expressing her frustration with those who say “you’re only as old as you think you are,” Le Guin suggests that old age is not something to be denied. To do that, Le Guin argues, is to erase the long life already lived.

The practice of a lifelong skill or the wisdom gained throughout one’s life is valuable, she says, and worthy of respect, and should not be downplayed or denied. She finishes with the recommendation to “let age be age. Let your old relative or old friend be who they are. Denial serves nothing, no one, no purpose.”

Le Guin quickly jumps to literary subjects in a section titled “The Lit Biz” that includes her thoughts on literary trends, the concept of the Great American Novel, and the pains and joys of answering fan mail.

She breaks down the Great American Novel, looking at what makes a novel both great and American, ultimately deciding that, “We have all the great novels we need and right now some man or woman is writing a new one we won’t know we needed till we read it.”

 In between each of these sections, Le Guin pauses to tell captivating tales of Pard, the cat that she adopted from her local humane society in 2010.
Through quick verbal snapshots readers get to know the little black-and-white tuxedo cat. Le Guin describes him as a  “a vivid little creature…utterly sweet and utterly nutty.” She notes that Pard doesn’t merely run around the house, but “flies around, mostly about waist level.” The sweet anecdotes and lively details of a day in the life with Pard capture the delightful essence of her cat, or, as she says, “the soul of the house.”

Le Guin again takes on the impossible in the third section “Trying To Make Sense Of It,” where she addresses hot-button issues such as feminism and America’s perception of war in the 21st century, among many others.

 In the fourth section Le Guin reflects on art, culture, the majesty of the outdoors, and soft boiled eggs. In her final chapter, “Notes from a Week at a Ranch in the Oregon High Desert,” Le Guin paints a beautiful picture of a desert valley in eastern Oregon worthy of an Aaron Copland orchestration. Birds dance through the air, poplar trees conceal the darkness until night falls, and “a creek comes energetically down off a mountain.”

“No Time To Spare” brings life to even the smallest details of daily existence, even as it asks readers to ponder new perspectives, fall in love with Pard the tuxedo cat, and reexamine the little details of their own lives.

For Le Guin’s fans, “No Time to Spare” will be a well-loved look into her lucid musings on subjects small and large. For readers new to Le Guin, “No Time to Spare” is a wonderful introduction to her work and thinking.

But the best thing about this collection is Le Guin herself. Her insightful stories and playful language will carry readers along, bringing them to the last page much too soon.

Hannah Schlomann is a Monitor staffer.

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