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November 16, 2006

Ursula LeGuin Says: Libraries Are Important

And she said so in a library:

A government can silence writers easily, yet Literature always escapes its control. Literature cannot control a government; poets, as poets, do not legislate. What they can do is set minds free of the control of any tyrant or demagogue and his lies and disinformation.

The Greek Socrates wrote: "The misuse of language induces evil in the soul." Evil government relies on deliberate misuse of language. Because literary skill is the rigorous use of language in the pursuit of truth, the habit of literature, of serious reading, is the best defense against believing the half-truths of ideologues and the lies of demagogues.

The poet Shelley wrote: "The imagination is the great instrument of moral good." Believing that, I see a public library as the toolshed, the warehouse, concert hall, temple, Capitol of imagination — of moral good. So here — right here where we are, right now — is where America stands or falls. Can we still imagine ourselves as free? If not, we have lost our freedom.

You may thank libraries yourself by reading it all. (It's short.)


Posted at November 16, 2006 07:58 PM | TrackBack

The other day, someone (I forget who) was lamenting some Charlie-Kaufman-esque masturbation about the social import of writers and commented that they are always over-estimating their utility and importance towards society. I'm not sure I agree with that, though I would say that what Shelley should have said, instead, is "The imagination CAN BE the great instrument of moral good." Even when exercised, the result can be quite flatulent and weak. Or, even if it is not weak, it might be entirely amoral in effect. Do we get anything from Humbert Humbert's story other than gasping happily at Nabokov's prose?

Posted by: saurabh at November 16, 2006 08:25 PM

Not a fucking thing. And if we'd sent every hard-left writer in American history instead to law school, how much better do you think we might have done?

Posted by: Sully at November 16, 2006 08:36 PM

I'm a fan of great writing as well, but let's get some perspective. The people who enjoy reading literature are freaks -- a ridiculously small percentage of the total population.

I think Vonnegut was closer to the truth about artists' utility:

You know, every artist in the United States worth a shit was against the Vietnam War, which was, you know, cruelly stupid and unnecessary. So every writer, every painter, every poet, every musician was against the Vietnam War. And I have said that it's like a laser beam, you know, where all the beams of light are aimed in one direction and so all art, the total art world, and also a whole lot of other decent people, would form this laser beam, everybody aimed at the Vietnam War to stop it. And the power of this weapon turned out to be that of a custard pie, two feet in diameter, dropped from a stepladder six feet high. It made no fucking difference.

(BTW, I also find it ironic that Le Guin would quote Socrates to defend literature, since his Republic would have banned writers, poets, actors, and just about all creative people.)

But just to show I'm not a total Philistine, here's one of my favorite poems. Even in translation you can sense its haunting rhythm:

Tell me now in what hidden is
Lady Flora the lovely Roman?
Where's Hipparchia, and where is Thais,
Neither of them the fairer woman?
Where is Echo, beheld of no man,
Only heard on river and mere,--
She whose beauty was more than human?...
But where are the snows of yester-year?

Posted by: Cal at November 17, 2006 03:16 AM

"I also find it ironic that Le Guin would quote Socrates to defend literature, since his Republic would have banned writers, poets, actors, and just about all creative people"

Isn't it Plato's Republic?

Posted by: Numad at November 17, 2006 04:11 AM

"Isn't it Plato's Republic?
Yes it is. Socrates, like Christ and Buddha, didn't write anything. They left that to their disciples. Very clever: all merits go to the master; all faults can be attributed to the disciple.

Posted by: Ivo Moelans at November 17, 2006 08:11 AM

Well, Sully, we may have gone from "Drink deep, or touch not, etc., to "A wonderful bird is the pelican ", or worse yet, to the immortal law school ballad, "The birds in the trees sing high, sing low," etc.

Posted by: Jesus B. Ochoa at November 17, 2006 09:15 AM

We did that once, Sully. They wrote major portions of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Posted by: MarcLord at November 17, 2006 10:11 AM

Speaking of Plato's Republic, an excellent version of it read by Patrick Horgan is available, for free and free of advertising (for now), on iTunes.

Posted by: MarcLord at November 17, 2006 10:14 AM

Slave owners are hard left?

I would much rather have the writer Thomas Paine working at the Declaration and the Constitution than I would the statesman Thomas Jefferson.

Posted by: Sully at November 17, 2006 11:10 AM

"... a public library as the toolshed, the warehouse, concert hall, temple, Capitol of imagination — of moral good."

Except for the UCLA library.

Posted by: blondie at November 17, 2006 11:49 AM

Isn't it Plato's Republic? -- Ivo

Plato wrote it but Socrates is the main character. The one thing that all of Socrates' disciples agree on is that he hated democracy, and was a big fan of Sparta. That's mainly why the Athenians forced him to kill himself.

Posted by: Cal at November 17, 2006 03:05 PM

...not that you'd know it from reading John Ralston Saul.

Take that, Jon!

Posted by: Sully at November 17, 2006 03:22 PM

But to play Devil's advocate here, let me offer this quote from Martin Luther:

"The multitude of books is a great evil; there is no limit to this fever of writing."

I'd rather see libraries as a battleground, and not a temple. After all, much of what is errant can be found in libraries too, can it not?

Posted by: En Ming Hee at November 18, 2006 08:56 AM