What to Read Next: Fresh Perspectives for 2024
Issue #310, featuring Ursula K. Le Guin and Andrew Leland
Happy Friday, readers!
Here in this first Friday edition of the new year, I wanted to offer a couple of books that bring fresh perspectives to our existence. That is, after all, one of the most imporant and refreshing things reading can do for us — it provides new visions of what life is like and what it can be like.
One of the featured titles today is a sci-fi classic that was one of my favorite reads of last year; the other is a recent memoir that opened my own eyes while the author’s were slowly losing their function.
Let’s jump in.
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
Published: 1969 | Pages: 243 | Genre: Fiction (Sci-Fi)
I’ve long been intrigued by the premise of Ursula Le Guin’s 1969 groundbreaking novel: an intergalactic emissary is tasked with exploring and providing dispatches from a unique world whose inhabitants are (mostly) genderless.
On the wintery planet of Gethen, people are basically asexual, neither male nor female — except during kemmer (a human version of being in heat), when their bodies reveal the correct parts to copulate. Given that description, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a sexually explicit book, but it’s not at all. Le Guin is far more keen to explore how that detail impacts life and politics — notably, there’s no sexual tension whatsoever affecting Gethenians day-to-day existence.
The whole concept is utterly fascinating. As a thought experiment, Le Guin provides insights on politics, diplomacy, and companionship (both friendly and romantic). The Left Hand of Darkness is remarkably wise and even philosophical throughout. It’s not just that, though — the story is riveting, too. There’s political scheming galore and even a gripping arctic survival narrative.
Le Guin also does really interesting things with structure — something I tend to enjoy, if for no other reason than appreciating the creativity of an author going outside the bounds of what’s expected. Some chapters are reports outlining Gethen and its people in memo-like fashion; some are narrated by Genly (our emissary, who’s giving the reports) from a traditional first-person POV; and finally we have chapters that are journal entries from Estrevan (our Gethenian protagonist). It all works very well together.
Despite being over 50 years old, the ideas on gender, sexuality, politics, and companionship felt fresh and eye-opening. I highlighted more passages in its 240 pages than most books two or three times as long. The Left Hand of Darkness was one of my favorite reads of 2023 and can be enjoyed by most readers. Though it’s found on sci-fi shelves, there’s little in the way of what tends to keep people from that genre (battles, spaceships, high tech speculation, etc.).
The Country of the Blind by Andrew Leland
Published: 2023 | Pages: 360 | Genre: Non-Fiction (Memoir)
This memoir of a journalist’s experience with retinitis pigmentosa — a condition that slowly causes blindness over the course of decades — popped up on numerous “Best of 2023” lists and then quickly found its way to my own must-read list.
Leland found out about his condition as a young adult, being told that his vision would slowly fade until he went completely blind sometime in late middle age. For years and years, then, Leland has dealt with being in a liminal state — not blind, but also not not blind.
This put him somewhat at odds with the robust blind community — he wasn’t quite blind enough to fully fit in or fully embrace assistive tools like his cane. And yet his worsening vision made his daily life substantially different from someone fully sighted.
Leland writes beautifully and powerfully about the psychological impact of this in-betweenness; as a dad and a husband, each degree of vision lost made for profound and often just plain annoying changes in their household’s daily life. In spite of the loss, however, he also finds himself gaining a new community in the process. Ultimately, it’s a book with a lot of hope and optimism.
My wife and I listened to the audio version (narrated by Leland), a format that felt appropriate given the author’s own experience of losing access to the printed word. Overall, The Country of the Blind was a worthwhile and often eye-opening book. Given the “Best of ‘23” hype, it didn’t quite meet my lofty expectations, but it was solidly 4 stars.
That’s it from me for this first week of 2024. Thanks for reading — I deeply appreciate the time and inbox space.