I have a few favorite books, not very many, and I read them over and over. You cannot imagine the grief I take for that. Nearly all my friends read broadly and with enjoyment and comprehension. And I’m married to a librarian. She’s a very nice person, but she is still a librarian and she doesn’t say, “What! You’re reading that book again?” She says, “Oh, I remember how much you always like that book.”
Today’s book is Ursula Le Guin’s The Beginning Place. Like a lot of my favorite books, it is classified as a Young Adult book. It is about young adults, beyond any question. As to who it is for, I’d say it is “for” anyone who wants to think about the ideas that are central to this story, or who wants to see amazingly realized characters, or who appreciates a clean uncluttered flow of narrative. And for me, particularly, there is the wonderful experience of seeing patterns in the story, eventually, that a more perceptive reader might have seen on the first pass. Sometimes it takes me a dozen passes, but when I get there, I enjoy it a great deal.
Here’s a piece I read yesterday. I’ll give you the line; then I’ll back up and look at the theme it is a part of.
“And though at first he saw her, like the armchair, as trying hard to do a job she wasn’t up to, he could not keep seeing her from the quiet place…”
“He” is Hugh Rogers, a teenager; a complete loser. “She” is Hugh’s mother, the only principal character who is given no name at all. It’s really the armchair I want to talk about.
Hugh has had two very recent experiences with that armchair—one before and one after his discovery of “the quiet place.” Here’s “before.”
He (Hugh) took the bag (of peanuts) into the living room and turned on the television set and sat down in the armchair. The chair shook and creaked under his weight.”
Then something happens to Hugh. He runs out of his house and winds up in a small wooded area with a little creek, where it seems always to be twilight. In his own mind, he comes to call it “the quiet place,” not only because it is quiet there, but because he is quiet there. When he goes back home, he is, briefly at least, a changed person and has the “after” experience with the armchair.
He finished the peanuts, moved into the living room, turned off the light, turned on the television, instantly turned it off again, and sat down in the armchair. The chair shook and creaked, but this time he was more aware of its inadequacy as an armchair than of his own clumsy weight…He felt sorry for the poor sleazy shoddy chair, instead of disgusted with himself.
That’s a lot of change, isn’t it, for a life-changing experience that took no clock time at all. Michael Polanyi says that a newly blind person, using a cane, experiences the cane smacking against his palm and his fingers. A blind person who is accustomed to the cane, doesn’t feel anything in his hand: he feels a chair leg or a curb, or the wall at the end of the hallway. For the recently blind person, the cane is the experience. For the accomplished blind person, the world is the experience and the cane is the means by which he explores it. The blind person who is good at it attends “from” the cane “to” the world around him.
In the “before” scene, Hugh sits down in the armchair and experiences himself, rather than the chair. He attends from the chair to himself. The chair, not being examined at all, is assumed to be as it should be, but Hugh is not as he should be.
It is obvious that there is a discrepancy between how heavy Hugh is and how sturdy the chair is. The discrepancy is a fact. Hugh can attend to how great the burden is—he feels himself to be “a heavy animal”—or to how inadequate the chair is. Neither of those is a fact; they are habits of mind and they act to control what Hugh might focus on. He condemns himself, you notice, when he focuses on his weight. He feels a kind of sympathy for the chair when he focuses on the chair. It is a “poor, sleazy, shoddy chair” and it is probably doing all it can, but the demands of the job are too much for its poor quality construction.
I want to argue in passing—it is hard to do in the context of this novel because Hugh is such a good guy—that not everyone is well served by attending to the inadequacy of the chair. Hugh is trapped in this place by his duty to his mother and by the hard facts of his life. Attending to the fragile chair is the only useful thing for Hugh to do. There are other people, however, who need to pay attention to that part of the difficulty that is contributed by their own values or their own behavior. They need to change what they are doing and sympathy for the chair will not help them.
Hugh, having attended to the chair from “the quiet place,” which is now a place in him, is presented with a much harder task. His mother comes home and starts in on him right away.
“Really, Hugh, you cannot manage the simplest thing. How can I be comfortable about going out after work to have a little time with my friends when you’re so irresponsible? Where’ the bag of peanuts I bought to take to Durbina’s tomorrow?”
Here’s LeGuin’s account of Hugh’s effort to respond to his mother in the new way; the way he had just hit on that evening.
And though at first he saw her, like the armchair, as simply inadequate, trying hard to do a job she wasn’t up to, he could not keep seeing her from the quiet place but was drawn back, roped in, till all he could do was not listen…”
That is where we started, remember. “He could not [and so] he was drawn back.” Nice try, Hugh. His new awareness of how he might look at things differently and feel differently about them is as inadequate to the provocation his mother presents as the armchair is to Hugh’s weight. You can see this isn’t going to work and it doesn’t work. At least not in this world.
In the world, Tembreabrezi, of which the little woods is “the beginning place,” it does work. Here is the way LeGuin ends the story.
Next morning they left the hospital together. It was raining again and she [his girlfriend, Irene] wore the patched and battered cloak, he the stained leather coat [both gifts from friends in Tembreabrezi]. They went off in her car together. There is more than one road to the city.
 You can go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Beginning_Place. For a good deal of useful information about the book, but nothing works quite like reading it.
 Earlier in the paragraph, we get this: “He felt heavy, a heavy animal, a thick, wrinkled creature with its lower lip handing open and feel like truck tires.”
 Also, his watch won’t run when he is there. Odd.
 If you know what you attend from and what, by means of that, you attend to, then you know a great deal about yourself. Polanyi’s The Tacit Dimension is an easy introduction to his work on perception.
 They could become choices rather than just habits, but that will require some work and the work would benefit greatly from understanding that “the world we live in” is, in many cases, just “the world we are in the habit of seeing.” You can change habits is you really want to and if you work at it long enough.