The author of more than a dozen books, Rebecca Solnit’s latest essay collection, “Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness,’’ expands the scope of discourse about subjects as wide-ranging as climate change, revolutionary movements across cultures and decades, the Mexican drug trade, and the Haitian earthquake of 2010. Solnit is a master of the essay written in service to the civic good, a title no other working writer can claim in quite the same way. In her signature prose style, which is luminous and precise, Solnit persuades, educates, and inspires.
In the book’s introduction, Solnit prepares readers for the book’s approach by defining nonfiction: “the whole realm from investigative journalism to prose poems, from manifestos to love letters, from dictionaries to packing lists.” Solnit takes readers on a sensory journey around the globe (Tunisia, Detroit, Chiapas, Iceland, Hiroshima, and other locations) — with 29 essays set in so many diverse locations that the book comes with an orienting map, a kind of thought-compass — while being engaged in an intellectually rigorous way that signals respect.
Solnit’s unique alchemy of emotional and intellectual intelligence is most accessible in the first essay, “Cyclopedia of an Arctic Exposition.” Situated in her arctic bunk in Svalbard, she writes, “I once read that we crave, contradictorily, both security and adventure, comfort and challenge.”
Blending the history of arctic explorers with her first-hand experience of a stark land that displays the obvious, devastating effects of rapid climate change, she philosophically traverses the distance between reality and imagination as if it were the most permeable barrier. “What is the virtue of cold, the refuge, the other ways to describe emotion? Cold as calm, as restraint, as stillness, as inaction?” Place becomes a launching point for inquiry and analysis. Familiar terrain — both physical and ideological — becomes complicated and ripe for investigation.
Acting as mapmaker and guide, Solnit marshals historical and political information to contextualize personal stories. From the macro to the micro, Solnit suggests, every individual’s actions matter deeply — in relationships and communities, in nations and the world. Her ruminating, ruthless mind challenges readers to question the stories provided by mainstream media, as in this example from “In Haiti, Words Can Kill”: “If you grab that stuff, are you a criminal? Should you end up lying in the dirt on your stomach with a cop tying your hands behind your back? Should you end up labeled a looter in the international media? Should you be shot down in the street?”
In “The Butterfly and the Boiling Point: Reflections on the Arab Spring and After,” Solnit continues to provoke. Passages like this might galvanize the most politically passive individual: “The point is not that causation is unpredictable and erratic. The point is that butterflies and sparrows and young women in veils and an unknown twenty-year-old rapping in Arabic and you yourself, if you wanted, sometimes have tremendous power, enough to bring down a dictator, enough to change the world.”
Taking her cue from the true heritage of the essay, which is to persuade, Solnit’s work is a reminder — one that is not naive, but informed and passionate — that nations prosper because ordinary individuals notice patterns of inequality and try to change them. “Causes are like Russian dolls. You can keep opening each one up and find another one inside it.” The world is interconnected by strands seen and unseen, acknowledged and unacknowledged. Solnit illuminates the sources of these connections and invites you to examine them as well.
Solnit is like a citizen conscience, roving wide and with a long view, teaching us to see world events in new ways, to seek out the stories that nobody tells or that nobody wants to hear. In “Apologies to Mexico,” written in epistolary style, Solnit’s voice borders on outrage: “I’d like to apologize for the drug war, the 10,000 waking nightmares that make the news and the rest that don’t.” Her great gift is to be inclusive of readers and story subjects in her essays. You can’t read “Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness” and not feel inspired to make your own trouble, to inhabit your own space in a different way.
Emily Rapp’s most recent book is “The Still Point of the Turning World.”