Why We Need to Imagine: Ursula K. Le Guin on Literature and Imagination

Words are the wings both intellect and imagination fly on.

~ Ursula K. Le Guin

Literature nourishes our imagination and lights the way to our humanity. For an eloquent statement on the transformative power of literature, we turn to the American writer Ursula K. Le Guin, who is the author of more than sixty books of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, drama, children’s literature, and translation.

Born in Berkeley, California, Le Guin was widely admired for bringing literary depth and a tough-minded feminist sensibility to science fiction and fantasy with books like “The Left Hand of Darkness” and the Earthsea series. She received many accolades, including the National Book Award, seven Hugo and six Nebula awards, and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She died in 2018.

Author Ursula Le Guin at home with her cat, Lorenzo, in 1996. The writer’s “pleasant duty,” she said, is to ply the reader’s imagination with “the best and purest nourishment that it can absorb. Credit: Jill Krementz.

The following is an edited extract of Le Guin’s wonderfully insightful essay on the way literature feeds our imagination, entitled “The Operating Instructions”. It was read it at an Oregon Literary Arts meeting in 2002.

Imagination and Life

In America, the imagination is generally looked on as something that might be useful when the TV is out of order. Poetry and plays have no relation to practical politics. Novels are for students, housewives, and other people who don’t work. Fantasy is for children and primitive peoples. Literacy is so you can read the operating instructions.

I think the imagination is the single most useful tool mankind possesses. It beats the opposable thumb. I can imagine living without my thumbs, but not without my imagination. I hear voices agreeing with me. “Yes, yes!” they cry. “The creative imagination is a tremendous plus in business! We value creativity, we reward it!”

In the marketplace, the word creativity has come to mean the generation of ideas applicable to the practical strategies to make larger profits. This reduction has gone on so long that the word creative can hardly be degraded further. I don’t use it anymore.

Imagination is not a means of making money. It has no place in the vocabulary of profit-making. It is not a weapon, though all weapons originate from it. The imagination is an essential tool of the mind, a fundamental way of thinking, an indispensable means of becoming and remaining human. We have to learn to use it, and how to use it, like any other tool.

Literature and Imagination

Children have imagination to start with, as they have body, intellect, the capacity for language: things essential to their humanity, things they need to learn how to use, and use it well. Such training should begin in infancy and go on throughout life. Young human beings need exercises in imagination as they need exercises in all the basic skills of life – bodily and mental, for growth, for health, for competence, for joy. This need continues as long as the mind is alive. When children are taught to hear and learn the central literature of their people, or in literate cultures, to read and understand it, their imagination is getting a very large part of the exercise it needs.

We are a wordy species. Words are the wings both intellect and imagination fly on. Music, dance, visual arts, crafts of all kinds, all are central to human development and well-being, but to train the mind to take off from immediate reality and return to it with new understanding and new strength, nothing quite equals poem and story.

Imagination and Our Collective Humanity

A people who doesn’t live at the center of the world, as defined and described by its poets and storytellers, is in a bad way. The center of the world is where you live fully, where you know how things are done, how they are done rightly, done well. A child who doesn’t know where the center is – where the home is, what home is – that child is in a very bad way.

Home isn’t Mom and Dad, and Sis and Bud. Home isn’t where they let you in. It’s not a place at all. Home is imaginary. Home, imagined, comes to be. You can’t get to it unless your people show you how to imagine it, whoever your people are. They may not be your relatives. They may never have spoken your language. They may have been dead for a thousand years. They may be nothing but words printed on paper, ghosts of voices, shadows of minds. But they can guide you home. They are your human community.

All of us have to learn how to invent our lives, make them up, imagine them. We need to be taught these skills; we need guides to show us how. Without them, our lives get made for us by other people. Human beings have always joined in groups to imagine how best to live and help one another carry out the plan. The essential function of human community is to arrive at some agreement on what we need, what life ought to be, what we want our children to learn, and then to collaborate in learning and teaching so that we and they can go on the way we think is the right way.

Small communities with strong traditions are often clear about the way they want to go, and good at teaching it. But traditions crystallise imagination to the point of fossilising it as dogma and forbidding new ideas. Larger communities, such as cities, open up room for people to imagine alternatives, learn from people of different traditions, and invent their own ways to live.

As alternatives proliferate, however, huge populations are exposed continuously reproduced voices, images, and words used for commercial and political profit, and there are too many people who want to and can invent us, own us, shape and control us through seductive and powerful media. It’s a lot to ask of a child to find a way through all that alone. What a child needs, what we all need, is to find some other people who have imagined life along lines that make sense to us and allow some freedom and listen to them. Not hear passively but listen.

Words of Imagination

Listening is an act of community, which takes space, time, and silence. Reading is a means of listening. Reading is not as passive as hearing or viewing. It’s an act; you do it. You read at your pace, your own speed. You take in what you can and want to take in, not what they shove at you fast and hard and loud in order to overwhelm and control you. Reading a story, you may be told something, but you’re not being sold anything. And though you’re usually alone when you read, you are in communion with another mind. You aren’t being brainwashed, or co-opted or used; you’ve joined in an act of the imagination.

I know of no reason why our media could not create a similar community of the imagination, as theatre has often done in societies of the past, but they’re mostly not doing it. They are so controlled by advertising and profiteering that the best people who work in them, the real artists, if they resist the pressure to sell out, get drowned by the endless rush for novelty, by the greed of the entrepreneurs.

Much of literature remains free of such co-optation, in part because a lot of books were written by dead people, who by definition, are not greedy. And many living poets and novelists, though their publishers may be crawling abjectly after bestsellers, continue to be motivated less by the desire for gain than by the wish to do what they’d probably do for nothing if they could afford it, that is, practise their art – make something well, get something right. Literature remains comparatively, and amazing honest and reliable.

Books may not be “books” of course. They may be a flicker of electronics in the palm of a hand. But technology is not what matters. Words are what matter. The sharing of words. The activation of imagination through the reading of words. The reason literacy is important is that literature is the operating instructions, the best manual we have, the most useful guide to the country we’re visiting: life.

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