Hope in the Dark
I read a lot of books, and like a lot of them, too; I have learned, after several decades, not to keep reading books I don't like. This means I end up exclaiming over many of the books I read that they're so great, the best, you have to read this right now! Somehow I keep saying these same kinds of recommendations without ever learning that people will tune me out if I get excited so predictably.
Anyway, so, Hope in the Dark is so great, the best, you have to read it right now! No but seriously, of all the books I've read this year, this is the one I've found myself thinking about the most after the fact. I got it on audiobook back in August and listened to it, and then as soon as I finished it I went right back to the beginning and listened to it all over again. And then I got online and poked around to find quotes from the book that I could keep around. Like this one:
"Fire, brimstone and impending apocalypse have always had great success in the pulpit, and the apocalypse is always easier to imagine than the strange circuitous routes to what actually comes next."
Which is true, and makes me rethink my own tendency to imagine the end of the world as final and abrupt and--in some ways--easy.
Or this one:
"Paul Goodman famously wrote, “Suppose you had the revolution you are talking and dreaming about. Suppose your side had won, and you had the kind of society that you wanted. How would you live, you personally, in that society? Start living that way now!"
I find it deeply heartening that an audit of my own life finds that I do, in fact, live in anarchy almost always. So much of what I do IS exactly what I would do after the revolution: I would write stories, and build a community of artists and friends, I would bake bread and play games and run a writing critique group and not own very many things and recycle and grow houseplants from cuttings donated by friends (and sometimes strangers!). And I appreciate having this standard to measure myself by. Not only does it demand philosophical consistency in all parts of my life, it rewards that consistency with hope: I am the revolution. Right now, reviewing books for no money, I am being the revolution. There's a lot of joy in that.
Solnit's work is often thought of as cultural criticism, I think. Her essays, at least, tend to be indictments of specific cultural moments or phenomenon--I'm thinking of her writing on terrible men in particular. But what has always been most valuable to me is her work as a historian. It's difficult to have a perspective that is distant enough to see huge whole-culture transformations over decades for what they really are, and not what we imagine them to be. This book was most valuable to me as a reminder of what I don't know.
Here's another quote:
"Ideas at first considered outrageous or ridiculous or extreme gradually become what people think they've always believed. How the transformation happened is rarely remembered, in part because it's compromising: it recalls the mainstream when the mainstream was, say, rabidly homophobic or racist in a way it no longer is; and it recalls that power comes from the shadows and the margins, that our hope is in the dark around the edges, not the limelight of center stage. Our hope and often our power.
This means, of course, that the most foundational change of all, the one from which all else issues, is hardest to track. It means that politics arises out of the spread of ideas and the shaping of imaginations. It means that symbolic and cultural acts have real political power. And it means that the changes that count take place not merely onstage as action but in the minds of those who are again and again pictured only as audience or bystanders. The revolution that counts is the one that takes place in the imagination; many kinds of change issue forth thereafter, some gradual and subtle, some dramatic and conflict-ridden—which is to say that revolution doesn't necessarily look like revolution."
The revolution doesn't look like revolution. It looks like this. And that's a pretty hopeful thing.