Back in early March I had the good fortune of being first on the holds list for Recollections of My Nonexistence, the new memoir by Rebecca Solnit. My luck held -- I checked it out just before the quarantine, thus guaranteeing that I could keep it for months. (I’ve been infected by Ms. Solnit’s contagious habit of looking at the hopeful side of things.)
It's no secret that I'm a fan of Rebecca's (sorry, but "Ms. Solnit" just doesn't work for an author I've been reading for twenty years, who has directly inspired my own writing). But rather than a somewhat biased review of her memoir, I'm going to provide a guide through some of her works, and you can decide if you want to read what she has to say about a life that sparked such a collection. Whether you're intrigued by all or part of her oeuvre, I think you'll find her memoir worth your while.
Rebecca Solnit is a California writer of some 20 books and approximately four million essays and columns. She possesses a curiosity as wide as the western sky, a passion for facts and research, a facility for finding and exposing the surprising unseen sides of things, an appreciation of art that blends seamlessly with the seemingly artless, and a writing style like no other.
I found her essays first, in Orion Magazine and TomDispatch online. This was in the time of the second-worst president ever, George W. Bush, when my interest in American history was rekindled. Her essays left me gobsmacked. They covered topics like the Gold Rush (which in her telling is also water and technology and fish and mythology); art and wilderness and landscape; and poet Gary Snyder ("The most radical thing you can do is stay home" kinda has an odd ring to it now).
Seeking any books she may have written, I discovered River of Shadows and Savage Dreams: A Journey Into the Landscape Wars of the American West. Both completely grabbed me. 19th-century photography, eccentric people, railroads, immigration, landscapes, conquest, Native Americans, nuclear testing... there is so much in just these two books.
Next came Wanderlust and Hope in the Dark, two very different and very engaging books. The former is a dreamy meditation on walking that's fun to get lost in, the latter a collection of essays from the dark era of Darth Cheney and CIA black sites (reprinted in the ominous days of 2016). Again, both are surprisingly good.
Please note that this is an incomplete list, meant to convey a sense of Rebecca's interests and writerly abilities. In Yosemite in Time she goes back to Muybridge, and provides a rephotography survey of Yosemite with photographers Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe. A large-format book, it's unique and fantastic.
She had yet to hit the big time, but A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster changed that. Like Hope in the Dark, it came at just the right time, as Hurricane Katrina swamped New Orleans.
After that came a little book that packed a big punch, at least for me and a couple friends: A California Bestiary, with illustrations by Mona Caron. Inspired, Doug Hitt and Lisa Grossman and I received Rebecca's blessings to then write A Kansas Bestiary.
As animating as that was, of all her projects and publications the atlas trilogy is my favorite. Three cities, three groups of talented artist and writer collaborators, three handsome books of maps and essays the likes of which you've never seen. San Francisco - Infinite City. New Orleans - Unfathomable City. New York - Nonstop Metropolis. Corlis Benefideo, Barry Lopez's famed mappist, hasn't stopped smiling.
Alas, space constraints force me to group five more recent collections of articles and essays together, which cover, among other things, war, surveillance, Virginia Woolf, climate, Trump, and feminism. Perhaps you've heard of "mansplaining"? Men Explain Things to Me is what cemented its place in the lexicon.
I can’t leave out Cinderella Liberator. Her first children's book, it's all you might expect, charming and woke and much more, with Arthur Rackham illustrations.
Soon into her memoir, Rebecca explains the tragic “nonexistence” of its title. Not to downplay that part of her story, from this reader’s perspective, given her ceaseless work with others both on and off the page and the mutual aid arising out of nowhere that she often sites, she might just as fittingly have called it “Recollections of My Coexistence.” See what you think.
-Jake Vail is an Info Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.