Thursday, January 28, 2016

journey to the bottom of the tbr pile: Rebecca Solnit/The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness

I first discovered Rebecca Solnit through her book Men Explain Things To Me, the title essay being the piece that introduced the term 'mansplaining' into the lexicon and gave voice to an experience that countless women could identify with, an experience I could identify with. I loved Men Explain Things To Me, a distinctly feminist work, it focuses on issues that were, are and continue to be, important to women.   

From there, I sought out Solnit's work online and in print. I read A Book of Migrations last year while travelling between England, Scotland and Ireland and it felt especially visceral given my personal connection to Ireland, one that mirrors Solnit's own. I remember marking multiple passages and making notes to follow up on something she'd mentioned or discussed. I find that's a regular occurrence when reading Solnit's work. She manages to seamlessly knit together ideas and information, producing essays that are alive and engaging, even with, or perhaps despite, the sometimes detailed information. 

The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness is a large book - both in subject and number of pages. Its twenty-nine essays cover topics as diverse as the environmental and humanitarian disasters of Fukushima, New Orleans and Haiti to the political upheaval in the Middle East and Iceland to the impact of Silicon Valley on San Francisco to the laundry habits of Thoreau - I did say it was diverse. 

Throughout the collection Solnit brings together moments in and of history (particularly poignant are the stories of the California gold rush, the impact it had on the Native American population and the devastation it wrought on the environment) with present day political, social and environmental issues in a manner that I have come to recognise as indubitably Rebecca Solnit.  

Highlights include the somewhat experimental Cyclopedia of an Arctic Expedition, an alphabetical discovery of the Arctic, the short and sharp Climate Change is Violence, its title fairly self-explanatory, One Nation Under Elvis, which cleverly links stereotypes about country music and its fans to the often fraught relationship between farmers and environmentalists and Winged Mercury and the Golden Calf which delves into the history of the Californian gold rush.

Notable also is In Haiti, Words Can Kill which discusses the role of the media in covering disasters and how the language they use often neglects to take into account the reality of the situations. It's a subject Solnit touches on again in Reconstructing the Story of the Storm where she discusses some of what wasn't covered by the mainstream media in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Finally, The Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami rounds out the disaster trio, exploring the aftermath of the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011.

Some of the pieces in this collection illustrate Solnit's willingness to experiment with the form, moving the essay beyond the expected, the previously mentioned alphabetical discovery of the Artic and essay as letter among them, and that's something I can wholeheartedly support. Plus, in a collection of this size, the break from the traditional essay is certainly welcome.

Despite their wide-ranging geography and subject matter, the essays are overwhelmingly American at their core. Something that, at times, felt limiting in a way, as if their scope was streamlined, their ideas shrunk. However, given Solnit is American and the essays, which were not written especially for the book but collated from previous works, were originally intended for American audiences, I can certainly cut her some slack here. 

The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness is an interesting collection, optimistic despite its often depressing subject matter. With its publication, Solnit adds to an already impressive oeuvre. She is a writer with a particular talent for a style of non-fiction that I find especially enticing, a style that weaves together ideas and subjects convincingly, that isn't afraid to twist the personal and impersonal together, that isn't afraid to be provocative or passionate or angry. I think they're valuable attributes in a writer.

In On The Dirtiness of Laundry and the Strength of Sisters, one of the final essays in The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness, Solnit writes about Thoreau, about his relationships with his sisters and their involvement in the anti-slavery movement. She meanders, pulling various strands together, moving around the subject and looking at it from various angles.
Towards the end of the piece, she pulls a personal strand:

'Though I am the writer, he (David, Solnit's brother) taught me a word when we were building the home that was mine for a while. The word is sister, which is a verb in the construction industry, as in to "sister a beam." This means to set another plank alongside a beam and fasten the two together to create a stronger structure. It is the most fundamental image of the kind of relationship Thoreau had with his sisters and I with my brother: we reinforce each other.'

As I read that a few weeks ago, as I read that now, I feel a sense of knowing and understanding and connection that I know is impossible without the personal. Maybe it's because I am a sister or maybe it's because I have brothers or maybe it's because of both of these things that I so intensely understand the point Solnit was trying to make. The act of reinforcement, the way we make each other stronger; it's a sentiment that feels profoundly personal to me. And yet I know it's incredibly universal, as well.

It's an example of what makes Solnit's work so great: those strands of the personal and the way she draws them together with larger ideas, with moments in history, with comment and commentary on a vast range of political, social and environmental issues. Because it's the personal that so often is the only way we can really see an idea or understand a point that otherwise feels too large or too overwhelming in its complexity and depth. Solnit did it masterfully in Men Explain Things To Me and she continues it with The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness. 

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