Matthias's Reviews > The Dispossessed

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
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it was amazing
bookshelves: favorites, my-reviews
Recommended to Matthias by: Manny

More than two months have passed since I've closed this book. While my traditional reviewing habit was one of immediately rushing to the closest laptop after reading the last line and sharing my excitement or the lack thereof in some hopefully original way, I felt a need to really let Le Guin's words sink fully into my mind and make them my own. (Actually, I've mostly just been very lazy in the reviewing department lately, but "letting words sink in" just sounds a little better.) But when it comes to making words my own, as this dear author evoked so well in this book, longing for possession is mostly futile, and so it is with ideas, impressions and most of all, inspiration. At least in my case good ideas tend to go and come as they please and if I'm lucky they can be grasped when there's something close at hand to write them down, just as the motivation and energy to write has chosen to quickly pass through my hands. Currently, the energy is there, but apart from some sparse notes that I now have to re-interpret myself, I only have a few central take-aways that I would like to share. This review can thus be considered as a barrel of some of the reflections I managed to retain before they too evaporated into untranslatable little figments of thought.

The first take-away is that this is one of my favorite books. It is engaging, it is exciting, it teaches and it entertains. Le Guin's prose is nothing short of wonderful. While the plot is not exactly extraordinary, it provides the perfect mobile in which to transport some important messages on life and civilization that this author has chosen to share.

The second take-away is that this is the best dissection of our society that I've read. I've read great books on the nature of human individuals on the one hand, and abstract philosophical meanderings on time and infinity, but never felt warm to the idea of reading about one of the levels that are in-between, namely society and civilisation. The reason why I never did is that there often seems so much more stuff wrong with society than right, so that it's hard to know where to begin complaining, and even harder to know where to stop complaining and inspire change. The building is showing so many signs of decay it's hard to dispel the idea to just throw it down and start all over.

Ursula Le Guin found a great starting spot in this book with which to make a nice filet out of our civilisation: the idea of possession. The need of people to "own" stands central in our way of life, and the illusion of ownership pervades much of our thinking and doing. I myself am not immune. To give just one example, I prefer to buy books rather than to go borrow them at libraries. To give another example: I just bought an apartment. Now it would be unfair to point the finger just at people here. Animals do it too, on a certain level. They want to own territory, but instead of throwing money around, they urinate all over the place or emit certain smells. For all the faults our society has, I'm glad we evolved away out of that particular habit, if only for the sake of still readable books.

Do I own these books because I gave money for them and they will soon by surrounded by MY walls? I guess so. Until a fire or a flood consumes them, until the hand of time consumes me. Yet, even though the banality of ownership during our short lives is inescapable, our ways of living are so much focused on exactly that futility it's no surprise so many people feel unhappy and wronged when they see their mission to that end either obstructed or sabotaged by those around them, or recognise their endeavors as futile once the mission seems largely fulfilled.

This is just a personal take-away of course, because if Ursuala Le Guin is doing one thing exceptionally well, it is the convincing way in which she gives each perspective on the matter a stage in this book. I can easily see the staunchest proponents op capitalism (and as someone who profits of that system's fruits it would be hypocritical and outright dishonest of me to claim that I dislike it myself) like this book as much as a dirty hippy or clean-shaven commie.

Possession isn't just about capitalism and material goods. It's more pervasive than that. Just think about how people refer to each other. "My" son. "My" girlfriend. "My" mother. Or how Jason Mraz chose to sing of his undying love by proclaiming "I'm yours". It's innocent most of the time, but when there's problems in relationships of any kind, quite often it is a question of a certain dominance, where one is under the other, where one is partly of the other. We like to own but we don't like to be owned. Except for Jason Mraz, that is.

While writing this review I was faced with another example of the futility of possession. I had made notes while reading this book that I intended to use to inspire this review. There are some interesting one-liners, some runaway thoughts, some links to real-life experiences. I would call them "my" notes. But what the two month span between writing them and reading them has shown is that even my thoughts are not entirely my own. Some lines I wrote down there are now perfectly incomprehensible to me. Others I can give an interpretation, but without the guarantee it will be the same as intended back in the day. How are these alien words still my notes?

"The Dispossessed" touches on many more themes than the one I evoked here, and Le Guin shows her genius on basically every page with throwaway wisdoms that pack a punch: on prisons, on the education system, on laws, on the press, on the world of art, the army, the list goes on. She can seem cold and pessimistic sometimes: "Life is a fight, and the strongest wins. All civilization does is hide the blood and cover up the hate with pretty words." or when she states that suffering, unlike love, is real because the former ALWAYS hits the mark. Despite this recurring pessimism, I found this book to be widely uplifting by looking through that veil of coldness and finding there the beauty of life, of all the things that transcend possession. Her criticism has an inherent warmth and is not above criticism itself. It's a criticism that has channeled my own apathy towards many of society's ways into something that seems more helpful: an understanding and even a renewed love. Yes, you read that right. I love society. There's nothing I'd rather live right next to.
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Reading Progress

October 13, 2016 – Shelved
October 14, 2016 – Started Reading
October 20, 2016 –
page 54
16.07% "I'm taking my time with this one but that's not just my fault. Every page is rich with wisdom. I feel like I found the vast treasure of Ali Baba but only got my tiny trouser pockets to stuff in all the gold. So if I can't all grab it at least allow me to watch it intently before I go."
October 23, 2016 –
page 77
22.92% ""The light of his world filled his empty hands.""
October 24, 2016 –
page 111
33.04% ""All the people in all the shops were either buyers or sellers. They had no relation to the things but that of possession.""
October 25, 2016 –
page 138
41.07% ""You can't crush ideas by suppressing them. You can only crush them by ignoring them. By refusing to think- refusing to change. [...] the innate cowardice of the average human mind. Public opinion [...] stifling the individual mind."\nAnother gem of a page."
October 26, 2016 –
page 172
51.19% ""As if deserving meant anything. As if one could earn beauty, or life!""
October 26, 2016 –
page 185
55.06% ""And so, when the mystic makes the reconnection of his reason and his unconscious, he sees all becoming as one being, and understands the eternal return."\nThis quote comes right after a metaphor of time that is much like the one in Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse 5". And my reaction to Vonnegut's book (put in a metaphor in my review) is much like what Le Guin describes here. I feel connected."
October 28, 2016 –
page 224
66.67% ""In the room heavy with life he slept."\n\nEnd of a beautiful and intense labor and delivery scene."
October 28, 2016 –
page 231
68.75% ""But was not a theory of which all the elements were provably true a simple tautology? In the region of the unprovable, or even the disprovable, lay the only chance for breaking out of the circle and going ahead."\n\nJust survived two scientific pages that went mostly over my head. I did get the Ainsetain cameo!"
October 29, 2016 –
page 277
82.44% ""The less he had, the more absolute became his need to be.""
October 29, 2016 –
page 277
82.44% ""Sacrifice might be demanded of the individual, but never compromise: for, though only the society could give security and stability, only the individual, the person, had the power of moral choice- the power of change, the essential function of life.""
October 29, 2016 –
page 277
82.44%
October 29, 2016 – Shelved as: favorites
October 29, 2016 – Finished Reading
January 10, 2017 – Shelved as: my-reviews

Comments Showing 1-45 of 45 (45 new)

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Derek I read this over almost exactly the same period. I can't give it nearly as high a rating. It draaaagggggeeeed.

There's a lot of good stuff in there, but oh god make it stop.....


Derek And you induced me to actually post my review... https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...


message 3: by LPG (new) - rated it 5 stars

LPG I'm so keen to read this. I avoided Le Guin for years because her name put me off for some reason and oh my god I was so wrong. Everything I've read of hers in the past few months has been sublime.


message 4: by Lyn (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lyn Great review, this is one of my favorites


message 5: by Matthew (new) - added it

Matthew Quann Excellent review Matthias! This sounds like a terrific piece of writing and one of my goals this year is to read something from Le Guin. Cheers!


message 6: by Ilse (new) - added it

Ilse Exquisite review, Matthias (and a happy surprise to find you back again here) - your musings on the many sides of 'ownership' and our lighthearted use of possessive pronouns, even when we speak of our loved ones, made me ponder on this tendency in us, reminding me of the famous words of Kahlil Gibran on children:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
(only to say you just sold the book to me. Adding it :).


Fabian {Councillor} (Random personal confession: Your reviews constantly leave me in awe of your talent to delve into a book by a) raising a lot of interest in reading the actual book myself and b) not even spoiling anything, yet making your review's reader feel introduced to the book already.)

And apart from that, I'm genuinely looking forward to reading something by Ursula K. Le Guin at some point of this year. A Wizard of Earthsea has been on my radar for quite a while, but I'm definitely not going to forget about this book either. :)


Jeanne Wow! Nicely done! Thank you!


Manny It is very interesting that you see the core of the book as the concept of having, while I saw it as the concept of the promise. It occurs to me now that the two are not incompatible, and may even need to be combined. Perhaps all we have, in the end, is our promises.


message 10: by Fionnuala (new)

Fionnuala Ilse wrote: "Exquisite review, Matthias (and a happy surprise to find you back again here)..."

Echoing Ilse, Matthias.
I enjoyed your meditation on ownership and I especially related to the part about the fleetingness of even our more serious thoughts and impressions - borne out by the fact that notes we make in the moment can seem incomprehensible with the passing of time.
I've enjoyed Le Guin's writing in the past - no fleeting impression there - and am always happy to see her getting attention.


Matthias Matthew wrote: "Excellent review Matthias! This sounds like a terrific piece of writing and one of my goals this year is to read something from Le Guin. Cheers!"


Thanks Matthew! I would definitely recommend this one if you haven't figured out with which Le Guin to start yet. It was my first acquaintance with her work as well, not counting the short story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas", which was excellent too.


Matthias Ilse wrote: "Exquisite review, Matthias (and a happy surprise to find you back again here) - your musings on the many sides of 'ownership' and our lighthearted use of possessive pronouns, even when we speak of ..."

That's an excellent quote, Ilse, thanks! Is that taken from "The Prophet"? I've got it sitting on my shelf, but I'm not sure how to approach it. It seems like a book that should be read one page a day.
And thank you for your warm re-welcome ;-) I tend to drop off the radar once in a while but Goodreads is a home for me, so I'll always find my way back to this wonderful community.


Matthias Councillor wrote: "(Random personal confession: Your reviews constantly leave me in awe of your talent to delve into a book by a) raising a lot of interest in reading the actual book myself and b) not even spoiling a..."

Thank you Councillor, that random confession made my day! It's what I aim for when writing reviews in any case, both as a service to the great book as well as to the great reader. I've also got Wizard of Earthsea on my shelves. I'll get to it for sure, but have been disheartened a bit by some claiming it's aimed at young audiences. I'll just need to hope for a time where I feel young again ;-)


Junta It's been well worth the wait for this review of yours, Matthias. I sympathise with much of it, and I liked the way you focused on possession (and thanks for the inadvertent snorts). The contrast between the two planets' societies made the biggest impression on me, making me think about how so much is taken for granted through things being the way they are. My (now perhaps never to be fulfilled) idea for reviewing this book was to have someone visit GR from another 'planet' like an 'ordinary (physical)' book club, and have them experience, question and confront the way things are - the concept of 'likes', 'adding as a friend' and so on. How much does possession play a part in this Goodreads world of ours, I wonder. :)


Matthias Manny wrote: "It is very interesting that you see the core of the book as the concept of having, while I saw it as the concept of the promise. It occurs to me now that the two are not incompatible, and may even ..."

Thanks Manny! This shows that you had a good point when saying that your perception of the book has changed over time, because of its many layers, its showing of many sides to any argument. Actually, as the recommendation field shows, it's you who pointed me to this book through your enthusiastic report on it. So aside from the promises, you also have my thanks ;-) However I must add that these "thanks" are not redeemable in any way.


Matthias Fionnuala wrote: "Ilse wrote: "Exquisite review, Matthias (and a happy surprise to find you back again here)..."

Echoing Ilse, Matthias.
I enjoyed your meditation on ownership and I especially related to the part ..."


Thank you Fionnuala! I intend to give her more attention during my future readings. They say everyone's got a book in them, but "The Dispossessed" sometimes gave me the feeling Le Guin already wrote mine. That's not to take credit in any way, but just to illustrate how much she managed to speak to me.


message 17: by Hanneke (new) - added it

Hanneke What a great review, Matthias. I so enjoyed your musings about your alien notes. Yes, that happens.


message 18: by Steve (new)

Steve This somehow means more to me knowing that someone who is capable of withering cynicism and censure comes away with something more uplifting in the end. Kudos, Matthias!


message 19: by Matthias (last edited Jan 05, 2017 01:51AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Matthias Junta wrote: "It's been well worth the wait for this review of yours, Matthias. I sympathise with much of it, and I liked the way you focused on possession (and thanks for the inadvertent snorts). The contrast b..."

Even though the deadline of 2016 swooshed by, I'm glad I wrote it up in the end. The concept of your review strikes me as something I'd love to read. I love it when a book's story gets transposed to the Goodreads setting (I'm reminded of your legendary review of "The Nose").
I don't think possession's got a big place in Goodreads, though I do admit copying my reviews somewhere in a folder on my computer to ensure I keep "having" them, and I somehow can hold on to the times when reading those particular books. When it comes to friends and likes, I consider the attention you all so generously bestow on my writings as a gift, but it's not the kind I can keep in a pocket somewhere so I can't consider it something I own, just as I don't own the sun's rays cast down on my face.


Matthias Hanneke wrote: "What a great review, Matthias. I so enjoyed your musings about your alien notes. Yes, that happens."

Thank you Hanneke! I'm glad it struck a chord. :-)


Matthias Steve wrote: "This somehow means more to me knowing that someone who is capable of withering cynicism and censure comes away with something more uplifting in the end. Kudos, Matthias!"

Thank you Steve! It's the best mix. Withering cynicism is enjoyable but once rock bottom is hit it one should start looking up again. On the other hand a bundle of fluffy optimism only means something if there's at least some threads rooting it to the harsh, cold ground of reality.


message 22: by Miriam (new)

Miriam Congratulations on the new apartment (assuming that was an actual move on your part and not a hypothetical example). Have fun rearranging your shelves.

Councillor wrote: "And apart from that, I'm genuinely looking forward to reading something by Ursula K. Le Guin at some point of this year. A Wizard of Earthsea has been on my radar for quite a while, but I'm definitely not going to forget about this book either."

Wizard of Earthsea is a good one to start with, especially if you're trying to read during term-time.


message 23: by Ɗẳɳ 2.☊ (new)

Ɗẳɳ  2.☊ Insightful musings for a story which is no longer fresh in your mind. Well done, Matthias. I so do enjoy said musings. Keep 'em coming!


Matthias Miriam wrote: "Congratulations on the new apartment (assuming that was an actual move on your part and not a hypothetical example). Have fun rearranging your shelves."

Thanks Miriam! It wasn't hypothetical, the move will be for April though, so still got some time. I think me shelves will remain arranged as they are, but I'm considering putting my books in closed cupboards rather than open shelves. The dust, you know. It started to annoy me greatly.


Matthias Ɗắɳ 2.❄ wrote: "Insightful musings for a story which is no longer fresh in your mind. Well done, Matthias. I so do enjoy said musings. Keep 'em coming!"

Thank you Dan! Currently reading "The DeviI all the Time", which I got based on your review, so definitely expect some musings on that one :-)


message 26: by Ɗẳɳ 2.☊ (new)

Ɗẳɳ  2.☊ Uh-oh, as one of my rare 5 stars, I'm feeling the pressure for it to live up to the hype. :-|


message 27: by Ivana (new)

Ivana Books Are Magic what a beautiful and touching review! I love how you say that her criticism of society is warm- I think she as a writer is too intelligent to be overly pessimistic. She senses the complexity of things and she doesn't try to oversimplify things- even if often it is the easier to do so, she avoids it in her writing.


message 28: by Miriam (new)

Miriam Matthias wrote: "Thanks Miriam! It wasn't hypothetical, the move will be for April though, so still got some time. I think me shelves will remain arranged as they are, but I'm considering putting my books in closed cupboards rather than open shelves. The dust, you know. It started to annoy me greatly."

Oh, good, plenty of time to plan and pack. And buy more bookcases. I have a few of the glass-fronted ones for more valuable ones, to keep the dust and damp out while still having them visible.


message 29: by Seemita (last edited Jan 10, 2017 09:23PM) (new)

Seemita Wonderful review, Matt! You lay bare the best parts of Le Guin's book without revealing the core and the basket of themes that you round in your concluding para is a call in itself.


Matthias Ɗắɳ 2.❄ wrote: "Uh-oh, as one of my rare 5 stars, I'm feeling the pressure for it to live up to the hype. :-|"

It most certainly did :) Not 5 stars, but a very strong 4 and a good start of a new reading year. Thanks for pointing me the way.


Matthias Miriam wrote: "Matthias wrote: "Thanks Miriam! It wasn't hypothetical, the move will be for April though, so still got some time. I think me shelves will remain arranged as they are, but I'm considering putting m..."

Yes, I'm looking out for the glass covered ones right now. I don't mind spending some money on them since they'll be the most important furniture in the place, aside from a comfortable bed and reading chair :-)


Matthias Seemita wrote: "Wonderful review, Matt! You lay bare the best parts of Le Guin's book without revealing the core and the basket of themes that you round in your concluding para is a call in itself."

Thank you Seemita! I'm glad my vague recollections still managed to do this book some justice. Le Guin is a formidable author and already a favorite. Can't wait to read more of her.


Derek Matthias wrote: "Yes, I'm looking out for the glass covered ones right now."

If you keep all your books on an e-reader, they never get dirty...


Matthias Derek wrote: "Matthias wrote: "Yes, I'm looking out for the glass covered ones right now."

If you keep all your books on an e-reader, they never get dirty..."


But they're not really books anymore then, at least they don't feel like they are. A PDF-file is always dirtier than a dusty book ;-)


Matthias Ivana wrote: "what a beautiful and touching review! I love how you say that her criticism of society is warm- I think she as a writer is too intelligent to be overly pessimistic. She senses the complexity of thi..."

Thanks Ivana! I had the exact same impression of Ursula Le Guin. She doesn't only sense the complexity of things, but manages to convey it in a seemingly (and paradoxically) simple way. I can't call it anything less than brilliant.


message 36: by EisNinE (new) - added it

EisNinE Great stuff, man, and so well written. You always surprise me with your choices, moving from big 'L' Literature to the ghettoes of SF & Fantasy, but why not? I vaguely remember reading Le Guin as a kid, but there apparently weren't enough dead aliens and people getting blown out of airlocks. There might not be enough of that for me now, actually, but it sounds like it's worth a read.

Pessimism is the only logical perspective for anyone hoping for better in some small corner of the world; any kind of optimistic idealism that appeals to humanity's 'better angels' is doomed to slam into the mountain of hard data supporting the 'people suck' hypothesis. I've run the numbers. It all checks out. :)


Derek No, there's not a lot of Boom! in Le Guin!


Matthias Eisnein wrote: "Great stuff, man, and so well written. You always surprise me with your choices, moving from big 'L' Literature to the ghettoes of SF & Fantasy, but why not? I vaguely remember reading Le Guin as a..."

Thank you Eisnein! I'm happy to see you pop up more often on my Goodreads-feed lately as well :)
It's true there's not a lot of action going on in this book, as Derek pointed out as well. If you prefer the kind of SF with teleportations gone wrong and planets blown up, it might be good to be pessimistic with regards to your possible enjoyment of this book. I liked this book not because of the action but because it tried to make some points against the "people suck" hypothesis. Not sure if that worked out in the end, but at least it confirmed that Ursula Le Guin doesn't suck, so that's a start!


Derek Matthias wrote: " ...make some points against the "people suck" hypothesis. Not sure if that worked out in the end, "

LOL. I'm pretty sure the conclusion is that no matter how much people, as a whole, may not suck, some people will always suck!


Matthias Derek wrote: "Matthias wrote: " ...make some points against the "people suck" hypothesis. Not sure if that worked out in the end, "

LOL. I'm pretty sure the conclusion is that no matter how much people, as a wh..."


In some way that's a strangely optimistic way to look at it :-D


message 41: by carol. (new) - added it

carol. Brilliant final line. :)


Matthias Carol. wrote: "Brilliant final line. :)"

Thanks Carol with a dot! :)


message 43: by carol. (new) - added it

carol. Did you just call me dotty?
;)


Matthias Carol. wrote: "Did you just call me dotty?
;)"


I was subtly working my way towards that moment!


message 45: by Tara (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tara Excellent review, Matthias! I just finished reading this myself, and I definitely agree with you about how it managed to both teach and entertain at the same time, which is very hard to do! Plus you made some great points about its in-depth dissection of society. There were just so many levels to this book, so much to take in. I can see why you waited to review it. Anyway, it was great reading your thoughts on this one! Oh, and I love your ending line :)


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