Contented Reader

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The Unreal and the Real, volume 1

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9781618730343_bigThe Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories of Ursula K. LeGuin

Volume One: Where on Earth

Ursula K. LeGuin

Small Beer Press

I made my way through the first four stories in the collection growing gradually more bored.  I’ve never really read LeGuin before, I think, although I’m aware of her reputation.  I’ve heard that she is a beautifully skilled writer, a little inclined to be preachy but still worth reading and important to anyone who wants to be a well-read science fiction reader.  I don’t really know anything more than that.

I recognized from the first paragraph that she was a master of craft at the sentence level.  I have a lot of respect for anyone who can put a really good sentence together- it’s a skill that sometimes gets a little lost, even by people whose plots are first-rate.  But I couldn’t quite see the point of the first four stories.  I’m sure I was missing something, and maybe when I try them again I will be illuminated by them, but this time, I was left with, “Yes, those are very pretty words… so?”

But then I got to “The Diary of the Rose.”  And I was … I was profoundly immersed in the story, both the character and the ideas.  It’s about a doctor who uses a technology that looks inside a person’s mind.  She thinks of herself as a healer, but a patient gradually shows her that she is also the tool of a deeply corrupt, totalitarian state.  She heals, but her work is also used to harm.  I related deeply to this story, because I felt a connection to my work as a public school teacher. 

When I focus on the day-to-day work I do, I feel that my work is meaningful, that I do something truly useful in the world.  I feel good about what I do.  But when I think about the larger picture, about American public education as a whole, I am filled with doubts.  Right now, the system is a mess, with America’s children, especially its poorest children, used as pawns in political games that have nothing to do with the country or the well-being of its smallest citizens and everything to do with political power and corporate profit. 

What is the ethical choice?  To stay, and try to do good in a system that is broken on levels so high my voice can’t be heard no matter how loudly I shout?  To fight?  To leave?  And what is the practical choice?  I have to make a living, to pay the mortgage and feed the cats and keep myself supplied with books, and teaching is the work I know how to do and can do reasonably competently.

“The Diary of the Rose” made me think of all of that.  I suppose almost everyone who works, works within systems that are evil and corrupt in one way or another.  Don’t they?  Is there any kind of work in which a person can be useful and contented and not be part of a machine that harms others?  Teaching is supposed to be one of the pure, idealistic professions; if I’m not the one with that job, who has it? 

I’ll bet it pays poorly.

Of course, I don’t have to be a middle-class professional person.  I could quit.  “Drop out,” as the kids used to say.  Live cheaply, and flip burgers or join an assembly line or something.  But even those jobs are part of big, complex systems that hurt people.

Am I just a cynic?  It can’t be true that the human race is just corrupt on a systemic level, can it? 

So the solution is to try not to think so hard about the big picture.  Within my own classroom, I can teach tweens to read and write better than they do now.  I can introduce them to the idea that wisdom and information are both found in books, and that ideas matter.  I can provide 45 minutes in which no one is shouting at them or threatening them, and free their parents to earn money to feed and clothe them.  Maybe the system is broken, but it’s what we have, and there’s room in it for happiness and for growth, if I focus my attention on what I can do and let go of the things I don’t control.

But that isn’t what Dr. Sobel decides.  And maybe she’s the one of us who is making the right choice.

Most of what I just wrote wasn’t really about “The Diary of the Rose.”  But that’s what I was thinking about while I read it.  Someone else, with a different life, will have different thoughts.  It’s that kind of story.  I think that it might have been worth the $24 I spent on the book, all by itself.

I’m not finished reading The Unreal and the Real yet.  I’m not finished with volume one yet.  I just finished that one story, just now, sitting in my classroom monitoring students who are taking mind-crushingly tedious standardized tests, and had a head full of thoughts I wanted to write down.


Written by Contented Reader

January 9, 2013 at 11:20 am

Posted in Reviews


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