Book Club Discussion | Wave in the Mind

Each month, the Shambhala employees gather to discuss a new book as part of our Shambhala Publications Book Club. After each meeting, we will be sharing the notes from our discussion with you to spark your own thoughts and conversations, which you can share in the comments below.

Our January pick was The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination by Ursula K. Le Guin.

Book Description

The Wave in the Mind presents a collection of short writings by widely loved author, Ursula K. Le Guin. While Le Guin is most recognized for her fiction work, this anthology reveals that her wit and talent are not limited to that realm. Included are autobiographical reflections, literary criticism, performance art pieces, and essays exploring the roles of fiction and the imagination, the writer, and the reader. As publishers and ravenous readers, the Shambhala staff enjoyed exploring these topics in depth.

Questions for Discussion

• For those familiar with Le Guin’s fiction, is your perspective on her work influenced by reading her literary criticism and reflections?
• In reading Le Guin’s analysis of the gender disparity in major literary award winners, are you surprised by what she found? Do you think that this disparity has improved or worsened over the fourteen years since this was published, or is it the same?
• Do you agree with Le Guin’s assertion of the importance of the realm of fantasy? How has your experience of reading fantasy, fairytale, or science fiction differed from your experience of other forms of fiction?
• How would you define “beauty”? How does your idea of beauty compare to Le Guin’s?
• Do you think Le Guin’s observations of other species appreciating beauty are simply an act of anthropomorphizing, or do you think that beauty is a virtue enjoyed by more than just humans?

Notable Quotes

In the first section, “Personal Matters,” Le Guin presents a self-portrait primarily through describing major influences—libraries she practically lived in, family, her imagination, and how she sees others seeing her.

On the universal quality of fantasy literature:

“But the nameless being given life by Frankenstein’s or Mary Shelley’s arts and machineries is neither ghost nor fairy; science fictional he may be; stuff and nonsense he is not. He is a creature of fantasy, archetypal, deathless. Once raised he will not sleep again, for his pain will not let him sleep, the unanswered moral questions that woke with him will not let him rest in peace.” (pg. 41, “Things Not Actually Present”)

“Fantasies are often set in ordinary life, but the material of fantasy is a more permanent, universal reality than the social customs realism deals with. The substance of fantasy is psychic stuff, human constants: situations and imageries we recognise without having to learn or know anything at all about New York now, or London in 1850, or China three thousand years ago.” (pg. 43, “Things Not Actually Present”)

“That the accepted (male) notion of literary influence is appallingly simplistic is shown (first—not last, but first) by the fact that it overlooks, ignores, disdains the effect of ‘preliterature’—oral stories, folktales, fairy tales, picture books—on the tender mind of the prewriter.” (pg. 109, “The Wilderness Within: The Sleeping Beauty and ‘The Poacher’”)

On the writer:

“All their admirers can meet is the person—who has a lot in common with, but is not, the writer. Maybe nicer, maybe duller, maybe older, maybe meaner; but the main difference is, the person lives in this world, but writers live in their imagination, and/or in the public imagination, which creates a public figure that lives only in the public imagination. So the pen name, hiding the person behind the writer, may be essentially a protective and enabling device . . .” (pg. 58, “Thinking about Cordwainer Smith”)

On beauty:

“So: What is beauty? Beauty is small, shapely, shiny things, like silver buttons, which you can carry home and keep in your nest/box.” (pg. 174, “Collectors, Rhymesters, and Drummers”)

On injustice:

“The shift from denial of injustice to recognition of injustice can’t be unmade. What your eyes have seen they have seen. Once you see the injustice, you can never again in good faith deny the oppression and defend the oppressor. What was loyalty is now betrayal. From now on, if you don’t resist, you collude. But there is a middle ground between defense and attack, a ground of flexible resistance, a space opened for change. It is not an easy place to find or live in.” (pg. 216, “A War without End”)

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