I had never read a word of Ursula K. Le Guin until I recently picked up "Dancing at the Edge of the World," a chronologically arranged collection of essays, talks and book reviews written by Le Guin during the period 1976 through 1988. It is a collection that is intended, in the author's words, "[to] provide a sort of mental biography, a record of responses to ethical and political climates, of the transforming effect of certain literary ideas, and of the changes of a mind."
Each of the essays listed in the table of contents is denoted with a glyph that categorizes the essay as dealing with feminism, social responsibility, literature, or travel. This categorization gives the reader a good idea of the range of the collection and of Le Guin's interests, which extend far beyond the science fiction genre for which she is most well known.
The quality of the essays is uneven. Some of the travel pieces are soporific ("Places Names," "Along the Platte" and "Over the Hills and a Great Way Off"), although they might be more interesting to readers who have been to the places Le Guin describes. Other pieces seem to suffer from the loss caused by transforming what were originally spoken presentations into writing. The feminist writings in some cases are the victim of changing times. What is useful, however, even in these weaker pieces, are Le Guin's introductions, which provide a useful contextual background that helps the reader understand the import of the essay.
While some of the essays are unremarkable, there also are several exceptional writings that are worth the price of admission. I refer, in particular, to the 1988 essay, "The Fisherman's Daughter," which provides a provocative and interesting discussion of women and writing, a text that follows in the line from Virginia Woolf's "A Room of One's Own" through Tillie Olsen's "Silences," drawing heavily on both authors for another view of this much discussed literary/feminist theme. I also refer to the essays from 1986, a very good year for Le Guin insofar as the six essays included here from that year all provide interesting and worthwhile glimpses at why her writing is so well regarded. In particular, I enjoyed "Bryn Mawr Commencement Address" and "Text, Silence, Performance," two essays that illuminate the ways in which spoken and written language, and the privileging of certain communicative forms over others, affects the world.
Despite the shortcomings of some of its essays, "Dancing at the Edge of the World" provides a fascinating picture of Le Guin's worldview, successfully painting the "mental biography" of one of America's more interesting and accomplished writers during one decade of her life.