What can one say about Ursula K. Le Guin on the occasion of her eightieth birthday that has not been said before? She has already been memorialized in numerous articles, interviews, and award ceremonies — five Hugos and six Nebulas according to Wikipedia — and her eminently practical attitude makes further paeans seem ridiculously overblown. Nevertheless, what better excuse than a birthday to return to one of anthropology’s greatest authors — and what better birthday present to give to her and those who do not know of her work than to recommend it?
Le Guin, as many people know, is the daughter of two great anthropologists — Alfred Kroeber and his wife Theodora. Her fiction, poetry, and essays on writing defy easy classification. Her stories are like pieces of wood furniture — simply and sturdily written, with a beautiful simplicity and craftmanship. They are easy enough for children to read, but have an emotional profundity that gives them great depth. Before her, no one thought to combine Boasian anthropology, Daoist inclinations, and keen sense of place rooted in Northern California, and after her the niche is pretty well filled. Like ethnographies, LeGuin’s best pieces — which for me means Left Hand of Darkness and especially The Dispossessed — ask universal questions through the exploration of particular times and places. Like fieldwork, her prose often begins with culture shock — strange words and ideas slowly resolve into coherence as one reads on. This summer in Papua New Guinea I read Birthday of the World, a collection of short stories, and was amazed at what lay within: Incan diety-kings, post-apocalyptic societies with social structures very similar to those of certain fringe-highlands populations in Papua New Guinea and, best of all, a world where men have nothing to do but play sports and have casual sex with women — a world that LeGuin slowly shows us to be a nightmare, not a utopia, for men.
We should be teaching Le Guin’s work in our classes, forcing it onto our graduate students, and talking about it at parties. It’s great reading, superb anthropology, and provides a unique form of knowledge and insight. So happy Birthday to Ursula K. Le Guin, and congratulations to all those who take this opportunity to (re)read her work and, in doing so, become more human.