On returning to old books

Books are home for me. It is for that reason that I’ve carried them with me, from city to city, across decades, in boxes and crates, piled in corners, double-rowed on bookshelves.

Coming to the end of a long phase of work on my own novel, I have felt the need for that certain sustenance that I only find in old books; in returning to a book that I have read and re-read and loved for many years.

The book I chose was A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin.

It’s a surprisingly slim volume for all the weight of its story (which is partly why I chose it). The book itself when I pull it from the shelf is yellowed and dog-eared. Beautiful images accompany every chapter heading, each one unique.

earthsea

The thing that brings me instant joy as I begin to read is encountering a familiar voice. Although I don’t recall much detail of the story, I fall naturally into the rhythms of Le Guin’s writing: the pacing, the colour of it. I know it. I have breathed it before. It is part of me.

“You thought, as a boy, that a mage is one who can do anything. So I thought, once. So did we all. And the truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do…”

Re-reading a book like this is returning home.

And re-reading is like returning home in more ways than one. Because in fact, my first reaction as I begin to read is a kind of horror.

This is an old book!

It’s so different now to most of what I read.

There is a distance in the narrative voice that allows you to see characters objectively, to observe them making mistakes, to glimpse their future, to skip through vast tracts of their present. Most often, now, the books I read and write are written in first person or close third – so the voice in which the story is told is much closer to the voice of the main character, and the experience of reading is arguably more visceral and more tightly-coupled to the experiences of the character.

Also, there are (almost) no women! In the world of Earthsea, magical power is confined almost entirely to men – only men can be wizards, and the power of women is weak and mistrusted.

I no longer willingly read fantasy books in which women barely exist. Most books I read now include strong, active, interesting female characters; it’s a basic pre-requisite for me. But Le Guin is one of the writers who built the foundation on which those books are written. She wrote the first three Earthsea books within a very short time, between 1968 and 1971. She also wrote ground-breaking science fiction that explored profound social, ethical and political questions, including questions of sexuality and gender. And then, seventeen years after publishing the third book, she returned to the world of Earthsea and continued to write. She has said of that return:

“Briefly, what happened in the 17 years between [the third book] and [the fourth book] was that feminism was reborn, and I became 17 years older, and learned a good deal. One of the things I learned was how to write as a woman, not as an honorary, or imitation, man.

Once the initial moment of shock has passed, I lose myself in the story. I begin to see the book for what it is, revisiting it now as a writer as well as a reader. There is so much wisdom, and so much beauty, crowded in so few pages.

In the words of Hari Kunzru, who interviewed the author in 2014, “Le Guin may be able to produce effective dreams, escape routes for the reader, but she is not an escapist. Her writing walks towards reality, not away from it.”

You can read the rest of Kunzru’s wonderful interview here.

At the heart of A Wizard of Earthsea are questions of power, of language, and of the darkness that all people carry. As I read it now I feel an enormous gratitude that I have carried this book with me, over years, across continents; that I had it as a child, that I have it to return to now, as an adult.

 

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4 thoughts on “On returning to old books

  1. You’ve captured beautifully how I feel about this book too. I re-read the entire series not so long ago and the latter works now speak to me more strongly than the earlier ones (although I’ll always have a place in my heart for A Wizard of Earthsea). Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I had to read Wizard of Earthsea for school in about Year 8 and I actually really struggled with it at the time… it’s one that I’ve been constantly meaning to return to because I think I would appreciate it far more now than I did then.

    Liked by 1 person

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