“Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice. To love someone is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story, and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of traveling from here to there.”
Fifty pages into Rebecca Solnit’s “The Faraway Nearby” I had to pause, put down the book, and seek the internet. What was I reading? I was equally enamored and baffled. Is it memoir? Literary criticism? Biography? Nature story? The answer – yes.
In what I can only broadly define as “non-fiction”, “The Faraway Nearby” covers an incredibly wide swath. From Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft to Alzheimer’s and apricots to Che Guevara and arctic ice – Solnit writes beautiful, soulful pieces all ultimately about the narratives we tell and which make us who we are. Her words are gentle yet firm, her message consistent and compelling. We and the world we inhabit are a product of stories, stories we tell others about who we are and stories we tell ourselves about the world.
“Empathy can be a story you tell yourself about what it must be like to be that other person; but its lack can also arise from narrative, about why the sufferer deserved it, or why that person or those people have nothing to do with you.”
Clearly a woman who so greatly values stories, who sees in them the foundation of humanity, holds books in the highest esteem. As a writer, Solnit sees books not as stand alone objects, but as tools which only come to life when read.
“The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinates. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another.”
Rebecca Solnit is a prolific writer, having published seventeen books on a remarkably wide variety of topics. If “The Faraway Nearby” is at all indicative, she is a formidable talent and a champion of the strength, breadth, and worth of women’s writing.
“Not to know yourself is dangerous, to that self and to others. Those who destroy, who cause great suffering, kill off some portion of themselves first, or hide from the knowledge of their acts and from their own emotion, and their internal landscape fills with partitions, caves, minefields, blank spots, pit traps, and more, a landscape turned against itself, a landscape that does not know itself, a landscape through which they may not travel. You see the not-knowing in wars in which the reality of death, the warm, messy, excruciating dismemberment of bodies, the blood and the screams, and the unbearable bereavement of survivors, is abstracted into collateral damage or statistics of overlooked altogether, or in which the enemy is recategorized as nonhuman. You see it too in the small acts of everyday life, of the person who feels perfectly justified, of the person who doesn’t know he’s just committed harm, of the person who says something whose motives are clear to everyone but her, of the person who comes up with intricate rationales of just remains oblivious, of the person we’ve all been at one time or another. Taken to an extreme, it’s the mindset of murder; enlarged in scale it’s war. Elaborate are the means to hide from yourself, the disassociations, projection, deceptions, forgetting, justifications, and other tools to detour around the obstruction of unbearable reality, the labyrinths in which we hide the minotaurs who have our faces.”