Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play The Skin of Our Teeth, which opened in 1942, is an allegorical comedy in which the Antrobus family encounters a series of cataclysms. First, the family faces the dawning of an ice age. In the second act, it faces the end of the world and must board an ark to survive a flood. By the third act, the family has pulled through but is emerging from the destruction wrought by a seven-year world war. At one point, the maid, Sabina, exclaims, “That’s all we do—always beginning again! Over and over again.” Lately, our constant stream of disasters brings this line to mind.
Is civilization on the verge of collapse? If it is, Rebecca Solnit suggests, we still have a chance to make social conditions better. In A Paradise Built in Hell, the September pick of the California Book Club, Solnit interlaces themes of catastrophe, action, community, and fellowship.
In Wilder’s play, memorably, Sabina also remarks, “But if you have any ideas about improving the crazy old world, I’m really with you. I really am.” Solnit has some ideas. Here are six books that make for rich conversation when set alongside Solnit’s clarion, persuasive appeal to take action for our neighbors.•
In Nyren’s historical novel, a young narrator and his eccentric family are displaced by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The narrator’s father has been photographing his son every day in an effort to capture time, but his work is endangered by the quake and fires. The family seeks refuge in the East Bay and takes up with a group of artists and performers. Nyren’s book is a natural companion not only to Solnit’s discussion of disaster utopias, but also to her book River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. The Book of Lost Light considers the effects of disaster beyond its aftermath. As the narrator watches twilight descend on San Francisco from the East Bay six days after the quake, he wonders whether Berkeley parents had “an awareness of the instability of everything, the way the earth might flex and warp beneath a family at any minute, and it was important to stay close together.”
The hybrid, finely layered memoir The Yellow House tells the story of author Sarah M. Broom’s large family, including 12 children—Broom is the youngest—and their lives in the titular shotgun house in New Orleans East. The narrative includes events leading up to Hurricane Katrina and explores what lies beyond it. It is a group portrait that presents a sharp critique of racial inequality before and after disaster strikes. The book rightly received plaudits: it won the National Book Award for Nonfiction as well as the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize. It adds to the concerns and questions Solnit raises.
This Radical Land is a nuanced essay collection by historian Miller that reveals an American history of dissent in the face of environmental exploitation. In essays he calls “acts,” Miller shares Solnit’s sympathetic fascination with utopian communities and their actions to transform dreams into reality. One act, “Possession in the Land of Sequoyah, General Sherman, and Karl Marx,” focuses on a giant sequoia in California, the biggest tree in the world, and the contradictions it witnesses in silence: the genocide of Indigenous people, followed by the formation of communes. Miller argues, “It was nearly inevitable that alternative socialist dreams would take root among the sequoias, for the specter of socialism haunted the star of capitalist empire as it shot its way west.” While the collection doesn’t chronicle acute disasters, it spotlights everyday radicals determined to gather to conserve their homes and landscapes.
In Station Eleven, Mandel, like Nyren, writes in understated literary prose about artists and performers after devastation. The premise of Mandel’s book is a pandemic that decimates the world’s population. Twenty years after a production of King Lear in Toronto, a band of actors, including a woman who’d been in the play as a child, travel around the Great Lakes region performing Shakespeare and playing music. The actors’ relationships to one another make them a family. However, they’re confronted by danger again when they meet a disturbing “prophet.” Like Solnit, Mandel sees the possibilities of using hope and love to build a larger family beyond one’s immediate blood relatives. Tenderness can survive disaster.
Portuguese Nobel Prize–winning author Saramago considers disaster in both Blindness and Death with Interruptions. In the former novel, he tells of an epidemic of blindness that affects everyone (the latter looks at an epidemic of immortality). This disaster leads to violence and a complete breakdown of the social order, as well as a challenging quarantine. As a novelist, Saramago depends to some extent on ambiguous conflicts that are open to interpretation; masterful novels do not tend to provide clear statements in the same way that nonfiction works of persuasion do. However, Saramago is also an imaginative allegorist. The novel’s sense for the possibilities of solidarity does coincide with Solnit’s perspective. In the novel, it is social bonds between characters—the element Solnit intensifies in her argument by naming it “paradise”—that light a path out of hell.
This dystopian novel is set in 2024, a future in which the elites and corporations have won. It is so prescient, it astounds. In some ways, particularly in her narrative treatment of how badly people behave after climate disaster, Butler presents a counterpoint to Solnit’s views in A Paradise Built in Hell. Yet a reader comes away from Butler’s novel and its sequel with social justice tenets congruent with Solnit’s. The novel’s Black teenage heroine, Lauren Oya Olamina, has “hyperempathy.” After an attack on her home, she joins have-nots outside her gated community and travels to Northern California, honing the principles of Earthseed, a religion she invents, which encourages believers to shape the divine, rather than expect a savior, in order to rescue themselves.