I’ve stated before that I’m researching dystopian literature, and part of that includes looking at climate change, natural disaster, and catastrophe (and if you have any recommendations, by all means, provide me book titles!). In the Dawson book I read and reviewed this year, there was a citation for Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell. I’ve only ever read Men Explain Things to Me, but I loved that, as well as some of her recent essays about the election and feminism, so I was absolutely game to give it a try. WOW. It’s such a fascinating book. I had vaguely remembered that Solnit is a historian/naturalist writer, but I was not prepared for her masterful and ingenious take on the subject of natural disaster.
Solnit examines natural disasters that took place in North America from the early 1900s to the early 2010s and examined the way community emerged as a form of resistance and response to authoritarian federal government’s ineptitude or corruption. Every disaster is well-researched, though the best chapters are, in my opinion, on 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. One important term I have walked away with is the idea of “elite panic,” which signals a narrative construction around death and disaster as a way for those in power to control and frighten citizens into distrusting each other. Solnit’s argument is that communities who rely upon each other and innovatively solve their own problems by subverting bureaucratic red tape are communities that succeed and survive disasters successfully. It’s a compelling argument, for sure.
This was an interesting and provocative book, particularly the unpacking of 9/11. By now, we’ve all read plenty of theories and op-eds, but this one felt fresh, somehow. Solnit commits to her research, but it doesn’t feel stuffy or dense. I very much recommend this book, but a small warning: she wrote it in 2009 and was deeply optimistic about where the United States would go after the election of Barack Obama. I felt sad about how far we have fallen as a country and how much rot we’ve been uncovering in the last few years.
Cross-posted to my blog.