Dedicated to recommendations and reviews of books, journals and websites.
“The Faraway Nearby”, Solnit, R. (2014) London: Granta Books
A beautifully written book which manages to succeed in helping to make faraway locations seem nearby, and to take the nearby/everyday or commonplace to different or faraway contexts, helping to bring fresh perspective on them in the process.
Solnit’s book is an elegant piece of memoir, almost of therapy. It takes what at times can appear to be a random stream of deep reflections, and weaves them amongst strands which take us deep into the territory of the craft of storytelling. Rather than just trying to unpick what makes a ‘good’ story, it uses these insights to heighten the experiences it introduces us to, making those feelings personal, and intense, and provoking us to reflect on our own story. It is difficult to not start looking for and making connections in your own life, just as she has in hers.
The book is as good an example of psychogeography as you will find on the shelves, without ever trying to formalise such a definition for itself, or explore the concept – but place is important.
Marina Warner, writing a review for The Guardian (June 2013) said;
“Dominating Solnit’s rich repertoire are two main thoughts: that imagination activated through reading and art, can help overcome the feeling of being a stranger in the world, lost among strangers, and second, that characters and places can build another home, and provide alternative stories to the dismal and constrictive plots of our own lives!”
“We are all the heroes of our own stories,” she writes, “and one of the arts of perspective is to see yourself small on the stage of another’s story, to see the vast expanse of the world that is not about you and to see your power, to make your life, to make others or break them, to tell stories, rather than be told by them.”
I’ll end, by sharing the beginning of Solnit’s book, so you can decide for yourself if it’s a journey you want to pick up, and begin for yourself. I can thoroughly recommend it. It’s an engrossing book – at times, I was so effected by it, I forgot I was reading a book. And their is a delightful device running throughout the book of a pile of slowly rotting apricots from a tree in her mother’s garden, how she has to deal with them, what they mean to her, and what their legacy becomes. Beautiful, for a reader who has become obsessed with the sourdough revolution, and other baking for neighbours.
“What’s your story? It’s all in the telling. Stories are compasses and architecture, we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice. To love someone is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story.”
“Which means that a place is a story, and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of travelling from here to there. What is it like to be the old man silenced by a stroke, the young man facing the executioner, the woman walking across the border, the child on the roller coaster, the persons you’ve only read about, or the one next to you in bed.”
This book helps you find it, and feel it.
“Today I Wrote Nothing”, Kharms, D. (2009) The Overlook Press
Early twentieth century Soviet, avant-garde absurdist jottings. I’ve written a full post about this book else, but had a ball reading it out loud!
“Hope in the Dark”, Solnit, R. (2016) Canongate Books
Solnit’s book was originally published in 2005, but has been updated to reflect what seems like ever increasing reasons for social and political gloom – particularly for those on the left – which is what drew me to the book. I consider myself a thwarted optimist, rather than an out-and-out pessimist, and was attracted to a book that promised to help define, and find grounds for ‘hope’ for those looking for progressive change on a range of social, political and environmental causes, when the forces lined up against such change seem overwhelming.
As she wrote in her piece promoting the book’s publication in the Guardian, “We may be living through times of unprecedented change, but in uncertainty lies the power to influence the future. Now is not the time to despair, but to act.”
For President Bush, and the Iraq War when the book was published in 2005, read Brexit, the prospect of Donald Trump, and the disarray in the state of the UK opposition parties in 2016.
Rebecca Solnit writes compellingly. She asserts, “Hope doesn’t mean denying these realities. It means facing them and addressing them by remembering what else the twenty first century has brought, including the movements, heroes and shifts in consciousness that address these things now.” She is big on identifying, remembering, and celebrating past campaigns, and successes – which are many and varied.
She synthesises a range of other writers to help build her case for real hope. “Critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is naivete,” the Bulgarian writer Maria Popova recently remarked.”
The key case for hope is laid out in the foreword to the 2015 edition:
“The tremendous human rights achievements – not only in gaining rights, but in redefining race, gender, sexuality, embodiment, spirituality, and the idea of the good life – of the past half century have flowered during a time of unprecedented ecological destruction and the rise of innovative new means of exploitation. And the rise of new forms of resistance, including resistance enabled by an elegant understanding of that ecology and new ways for people to communicate and organise, and new and exhilarating alliances across distance and difference.”
“Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognise uncertainty, you recognise that you may be able to influence the outcomes – you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both the optimists and the pessimists. Optimists think it will be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, and and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.”
So, that told me! And it certainly answered a lot of the painful doubts I’d been having – and I know many of my friends have been having of late, on the topic of having hope.
By exploring past successes, particularly of the last fifty or so years, Rebecca Solnit gives us good reason to have hope – and plenty of source material from which to learn lessons as to how to build it.
“Mushroomed: after a rain mushrooms appear on the surface of the earth as if from nowhere. Many do so from a sometimes vast underground fungus that remains invisible and largely unknown. What we call mushrooms mycologists call the fruiting body of the larger, less visible fungus. uprisings and revolutions are considered to be spontaneous, but less visible long-term organising and groundwork – or underground work – often laid the foundation. Changes in ideas and values often result from work done by writers, scholars, public intellectuals, social activists and participants in social media. It seems insignificant or peripheral until very different outcomes emerge from transformed assumptions about who and what matters, who should be heard and believed, who has rights.”
“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 the centre stage. Our hope, and often our power.”
The book is a reference guide for a number of liberation struggles throughout the world which have made for success. As Solnit says, “Memory of joy and liberation can become a navigational tool, an identity, a gift”.
One final lesson worth noting from what is a fabulously uplifting book – and one that is incredibly pertinent for those on the left of politics who, like me, have concerns about whether the vehicles we are operating in quite get the magnitude of the problems we face.
“It’s an argument for tiny and temporary victories, and for the possibility of partial victories in the absence or even the impossibility of total victories. Total victory has always seemed like a secular equivalent of paradise: a place where all the problems are solved and there’s nothing to do, a fairly boring place. The absolutists of the old left imagined that victory would, when it came, be total and permanent, which is practically the same as saying that victory was and is impossible and will never come. It is, in fact, more than possible. It is something that has arrived in innumerable ways, small and large and often incremental, but not in that way that was described and expected. So victories slip by unheralded. Failures are more readily detected.”
Rebecca Solnit provides us with grounds for hope!
“Originals: How Non-Conformists Change the World”, Grant, A. (2016) WH Allen
This was the book I have been seeking for a long time. Not only does it seek to distill the essence of creativity, it tries to discern what marks out those people who take creative ideas that one step further, and make them happen – ‘the originals’. Using a series of true stories to which he returns throughout the book, Grant aims to chart what we can all do to make it more likely that we can move mountains – and he discovers that there are a number of often counter intuitive fixes that can increase the likelihood of fostering an environment where originals will blossom – and these are helpfully summarised in the final chapter. For example, always questioning the ‘default’ setting in an organisation (it might be there for a reason – at least you will discover ‘why’ if it is); or, making your ideas more familiar (so those around you are more comfortable with your ideas, and so are more likely to adopt them); through to some tips for bringing through originality in children. ‘Originals’ are not born special, but train themselves through experience, learning and common-sense is, I believe, his central argument. We can all do it (well, maybe some more than others!)
Easy to read, and practical in approach, its strategies for encouraging adoption of new ideas have uses far beyond innovation in its narrowest sense. I thoroughly recommend this book. The video above gives a snapshot of Grant’s book from the man himself.
“Wasted: How Misunderstanding Young Britain Threatens Our Future”, Gould, G. (2015) Little, Brown Book Group
Although rooted in politics, this was a fascinating read with much to inform public services, private corporations and all our our human relationships with young people – or as the former might call them, a primary core audience! It was upfront in articulating how much intelligence young people can bring to campaigns and decision-makers, and how much this is often overlooked and paid lip-service to. One of the fascinating discussions came over the role (or potential lack of it) for corporate social responsibility, in a world where entrepreneurs put mutuality and cause at the heart of their business models, rather than as a ‘bolt-on’. There are so many lessons from the book, it is difficult to know where to start. One is the importance of not just involving young people, or inviting them in, but actually putting them ‘in the driving seat’ of organisations – not making their involvement a special event. In order for young people to make the most of their involvement, whether that be in the workplace, or in constructing campaigns, we need to increase the capacity for them to contribute – and that has implications for how the PR profession (not just politicians) engages with schools, and the National Citizens Service, so it can play a part in helping young people find their voice. This is even more vital after the EU referendum vote, when many young people (and many others!) may feel that the political system does not speak for them. There is also a lot of stress on ensuring conversations across generational groups, and across social groups – and PR can have part to play in this. The bottom line for all of this is that it is not just in the interests of young people – but it ensures that the communication and messages the profession is seeking to engage with actually work with with the future generations of this country, and the profession can then be seen to have a positive reputation amongst potential recruits across a more diverse range of faces and voices.
Most importantly, the book is about making society function more effectively again, by involving young people properly. Much of what it has to say about decision-makers embracing more creativity, and unleashing more autonomy is probably something we would all say ‘amen’ to – not just young people. Thoroughly recommend this book for its showcasing of a range on quality example case studies from around the country, and rich voices captured through in-depth qualitative interviews.
“Reaching Down The Rabbit Hole”, Ropper, A. and Burrell, B.D. (2015) Atlantic Books
Having been under the care of a neurologist since 1997, I was fascinated by a book written by a US neurologist of the old-school, outlining his approaching to patient care and crucially, diagnosis. At the same time, it is as much an account of a qualitative to professionalism, rejecting a numbers-based approach, to one that is based on human interactions, and looking out for the ‘particular’. The account makes neuroscience sound more like an art, than it does a science, and goes some way to show why a young medical student might choose it as a specialism. For someone who has a rare neurological condition, it is reassuring to know that the health services of the world still have figures like those revealed in the shape of the author, as he discusses how things went dealing with individual patients who crossed his path, ensuring he documents their lives with as much colour as is possible, without breaching any patient confidentiality. A beautiful read about a beautiful organ, and a beautiful man.
“The Utopia of Rules”, Graeber, D. (2015) Melville House
Not an easy read, partly because of the density of the material, but partly because of the structure, but in my humble opinion, this book’s moment is now! It’s central focus – society’s apparent fetishisation of bureaucracy, and our collusion in that onward march, has never been more apt. While there is no clear manifesto to lance us of the boil that is all to apparent from personal testimony with which we can all concur, the book uses this as a starting point for reflection which incorporates a range of threads – bureaucracy as a diversion, from right wing oppression, but also from our own fright at embracing untrammelled play, while this ‘utopia of rules’ at least provides a structured game, where there is at least some transparency on what basis we can expect decisions to be taken. If you want to be left with a clear conclusion, this is not the book you are looking for. However, if you are looking for signposts that will help unearth where the piece of the jigsaw might be that might help reveal a clearer sense of the whole picture of the crazy state of the world today, I think this book is on to something!
For a review elsewhere, see here.
“Trust Me, PR is Dead”, Phillips, R. (2015) Unbound
For review elsewhere on this blog, click here.
“Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Non-Violent Techniques to Galvanise Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change The World”, Srdja Popovic (2015) Scribe Publications.
Currently reading this book. Sounds like it’s got a recipe for where things are at!