"Are we beholden to each other, must we take care of each other, or is it every man for himself?” Rebecca Solnit asks in the preface of A Paradise Built in Hell, the California Book Club’s September selection. Variations of this age-old question propel many of Solnit’s books. Her work often asks us to do the difficult work of reimagining our possibilities for empathy and social change, and A Paradise Built in Hell, published in 2009, is no exception.
Raised in California, Solnit frequently situates narratives within the state’s landscape as she explores her questions. It’s a region defined by diverse terrain—mountain ranges, deserts, cityscapes, crashing waves—and, especially lately, an atmosphere of impending disaster. Rising sea levels. An ever-growing wildfire season. The looming fear of “the Big One.” This collective anxiety punctuates periods of rapid growth, along with dramatic political battles over conflicting visions of utopia.
A Paradise Built in Hell begins its consideration of disasters with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Solnit reports in one horrifying passage that in 2009, “the San Francisco Fire Department estimates that an 8.3 earthquake with wind at ten miles an hour could generate 71 large fires, which would require 273 fire engines—though the city has only 41.” In that moment, the challenge would be for citizens to become the other 232 fire engines. And, Solnit says, they often do: disaster can summon the best in a community even as it causes terrible tragedy.
Here are five other books by Solnit influenced by California’s political and social changes over the past decades.•
Solnit’s most recent work is a memoir of the formative years of her life as a young writer and feminist in 1980s San Francisco. Newly independent, she develops her own voice. Poor and adrift in a small apartment in the city, Solnit finds her worldview expanding, but she is also confronted with epidemics of sexual harassment and trauma. The solace she finds in the words of other writers and in the LGBTQ community transforms her definition of family.
The Los Angeles Times was one of the first publications to run Solnit’s original essay in 2008 “Men Who Explain Things,” which begins with an awkward interaction and spirals into a critical point: the social tendency to silence women can (and does) translate to violence. Arguably, this collection of essays is the result of the social tensions and anxiety that have characterized California’s recent history. However, it also represents Solnit’s transition from writing specifically about California and the West to influencing mainstream conversations on feminism and womanhood across the country.
Solnit reinvents the traditional atlas with this mapping of San Francisco. She reveals unexpected themes and landmarks across the city’s seven-by-seven miles. For instance, one map titled “Monarchs and Queens” marks queer spaces alongside butterfly habitats. In a smaller-scale and more visual companion to A Paradise Built in Hell, Solnit maps the city’s communities and the disruptions that have changed them, including politics, culture wars, and rapid redevelopment.
Los Angeles and Silicon Valley have become two of the foremost hotbeds of innovation in the world. Solnit finds the origins of these industries in California photographer Eadweard Muybridge’s animal locomotion studies of the 19th century. River of Shadows frames Muybridge’s strides in stop-motion as one of the first leaps toward industrialization and the accelerating pace of life.
Solnit pairs her deep knowledge of San Francisco with photographs by Susan Schwartzenberg in this book, arguing that wealth and gentrification can disrupt a city as much as a disaster can. Twenty years ago, Solnit lamented a loss of affordable housing in San Francisco and, with it, the city’s defining bohemian community. Today, as prices continue to rise, the book has gained even more relevance.