Why You Should Read This: ‘A Paradise Built in Hell’

"Solnit is no Pollyanna; she is among our most acute and insightful social critics, a writer and thinker who routinely cuts against the grain."

a paradise built in hell, rebecca solnit
Penguin Books

When does calamity cause community? With A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit argues that it’s more common than we might believe. “When [the Loma Prieta] earthquake shook the central California Coast on October 17, 1989,” she recalls, “… I was thrown into an intensely absorbing present. I was more surprised to realize that most of the people I knew and met in the Bay Area were also enjoying immensely the disaster that shut down much of the region…if enjoyment is the right word for that sense of immersion in the moment and solidarity with others caused by the rupture in everyday life.”

Solnit is no Pollyanna; she is among our most acute and insightful social critics, a writer and thinker who routinely cuts against the grain. A Paradise Built in Hell uses five 20th-century disasters—the 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco; the enormous 1917 explosion in Halifax, Nova Scotia; the 1985 Mexico City earthquake; 9/11; and Hurricane Katrina—to explore human resilience and empathy. For Solnit, what’s essential is the sense of presence that emerges in the face of collective crisis, the way disruption seems to root us in our lives. “For weeks after the big earthquake of 1989,” she notes, “friendship and love counted for a lot, long-term plans and old anxieties for very little. Life was situated in the here and now, and many inessentials had been pared away.”

Such an observation reflects something of what we’ve experienced these past 15 months, as COVID-19 has forced us to reassess community and shared responsibility. Our reaction has been in many ways a grassroots effort, enacted at the level of our neighborhoods. So, too, the catastrophes Solnit describes. Her argument is not that these events are good things. “Disasters are, most basically, terrible, tragic, grievous,” she acknowledges, “and no matter what positive side effects and possibilities they produce, they are not to be desired.” At the same time, our response can be transformative. “Trauma is real,” Solnit writes. “It isn’t ubiquitous.… As Viktor Frankl remarked, ‘Often it is just such an exceptionally difficult external situation which gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself.’ ”•

Penguin Books


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David L Ulin is Alta Journal’s books editor.
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