Having just finished reading the fantastic collection 80! Memories & Reflections on Ursula K. Le Guin (ed. Karen Joy Fowler and Debbie Notkin), I’ve started thinking about the ways in which my reading habits have changed over the years — mostly because of one thing, which I’ll now confess:
I haven’t read all of Le Guin’s books. Or, even half. Not for the reasons you might suspect, though; certainly not from a lack of enthusiasm or desire. Ursula K. Le Guin is one of our best, as 80! makes a point of exploring in loving detail, and reading her is a treat beyond compare. Her prose is complex, handsome, and challenging in the best ways, her worlds are anchored so deftly in anthropological and linguistic detail that they never seem less than immediate, and her characters fill all walks of life in their worlds and ours.
If I had encountered her first as a teenager, I would have read her entire bibliography at once, gorging myself on the beauty, the stunning prose, the sensation of wonder that reliably comes on the heels of “The End.” It would have been a great month or two, and would have left me exhausted at the end. That was just how I preferred to read: find a new author, devour everything they’ve ever done that I can get my hands on.
Not that there’s a damn thing wrong with a reading orgy; I know a great many people who prefer to dive in head first when they find a new favorite. I’m sure there are plenty of folks reading this who are nodding along in agreement.
But, my reading habits have changed, and thinking on my engagement with Le Guin’s oeuvre has driven that point home. I have a nicely sized stack of her novels and collections on a shelf in my library; some are well-thumbed, but some are pristine, waiting to be read. And I like it that way. Reading is a pleasure that drives away the dark, that can make a truly foul day better, that can bring beauty and awe to an otherwise disappointing week or month or year — reading something as skilled and breath-taking as Le Guin’s books, especially.
So, I’m savoring it. I have my pile of books, unread, that I know I will love when I sit down with one. They’re something to look forward to, to parcel out like pearls on a string. Instead of reading them all at once, they will likely last me years. That’s a lot of bright spots, scattered out as rewards and presents-to-myself. That is how I plan on interacting with this astounding body of work which has already made lasting, lifelong impressions on me and will no doubt continue to do so.
Reading the ways in which other people have interacted with Le Guin’s books over their lives in 80! was moving, nearly to the point of tears in some essays. The differences books like The Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed or Four Ways to Forgiveness or Earthsea can make in a reader’s life cannot be understated, and the writers of the appreciations, essays, and tributes in 80! have all bared their souls in their explorations of what Le Guin has done for them.
For me, her work has been an island of revelation, pleasure, and genuine awe in often difficult times. I’m not entirely certain if The Left Hand of Darkness was the definitive turning point of my habits as a reader — if there’s such a thing as a definitive turning point — but it was one of the books I most remember putting down at the end in silence, so astounded that I could not bear the thought of picking up another piece of fiction afterwards. It needed space around it, space to be appreciated deeply, intensely, for all of the work it does (and doesn’t) do. I could not move on to the next in the pile, could not devour them all at once.
So, in the spirit of 80!, which has inspired this set of thoughts on reading: thank you, Ursula K. Le Guin, for stunning me so thoroughly that I could not just keep going, and for introducing me however unintentionally to the pleasure of savoring brilliant books one at a time, over time.
And in the spirit of audience participation: how do you prefer to read? Devouring all at once, or savoring slowly?
[Edit: Jo Walton asked a similar question in regards to individual books back in August 2010 if you’re interested in more crowd-sourced detail on reading habits.]