Why A Field Guide to Getting Lost is the book you need in your life right now

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit is a series of meditations on what it means to be lost. Through a combination of her stunning writing, unreal bank of quotes from writers, philosophers and painters and stories about obscure historical figures, she writes a thoughtful and beautiful series of essays on our continuous fascination and fear of stepping into the unknown.

These essays are meandering, switching from rambling (in a good way) stories from history – how painters have recreated the horizon through the centuries, white settlers adopted into native American tribes, an artist determined to capture an image of the perfect leap – and anecdotes from Solnit’s life – love affairs with strange desert-dwelling men, the loss of her friend to a heroin overdose, her missing great-grandmother (I also have a vanished great-great-grandmother, so I particularly enjoyed this one).

Solnit’s writing has to be experienced. So, I figured, rather than a review I’d select a few choice quotes that best show why A Field Guide to Getting Lost is such a vital read. And not just because Solnit is probably one of the best writers alive today.

(She is though)

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“To lose yourself: a voluptuous surrender, lost in your arms, lost to the world, utterly immersed in what is present so that its surroundings fade away… to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery. And one does not get lost but loses oneself, with the implication that it is a conscious choice, a chosen surrender, a psychic state achievable through geography.”

“And some people travel far more than others. There are those who receive as a birth right an adequate or at least unquestioned sense of self and those who set out to reinvent themselves, for survival or for satisfaction, and travel far. Some people inherit values and practices as a house they inhabit; some of us have to burn down that house, find our own ground, build from scratch, even as a psychological metamorphosis.”

“But fear of making mistakes can itself become a huge mistake, one that prevents you from living, for life is risky and anything less is already loss.”

“A happy love is a single story, a disintegrating one is two or more competing, conflicting versions, and a disintegrated one lies at your feet like a shattered mirror, each shard reflecting a different story, that it was terrible, if only this had, if only that hadn’t. The stories don’t fit back together, and it’s the end of stories, those devices we carry like shells and shields and blinkers and occasionally maps and compasses.”

“When someone doesn’t show up, the people who wait sometimes tell stories about what might have happened and come to half believe the desertion, the abduction, the accident. Worry is a way to pretend that you have knowledge or control over what you don’t – and it surprises me, even in myself, how much we prefer ugly scenarios to the pure unknown.”

“Movies are made out of darkness as well as light; it is the surpassingly brief intervals of darkness between each luminous still image that make it possible to assemble the many images into one moving picture. Without the darkness, there would only be a blur.”

“That thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost.”

Hope in the Dark

If, like me, you have started to look out the window first thing in the morning with a sense of impending doom; if when you think of the world you imagine, instead of a globe balancing on the back of an infinite number of turtles, more of a sinking ship that’s also burst into flames and about the blow any second; if you feel like you’re in the middle of an apocalypse in which instead of a zombie virus, people are infecting each other with hatred….

Mate: You really need to read this book.

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Hope in the Dark is a history of activism, of success and failure. Of persisting in the face of a power that seems much greater than your own. Rebecca Solnit writes poetically about post 9/11 New York, civil rights battles and local business vs international corporations among many things, through the lens of hope.

I think we all need a little of that at this particular moment.

Since there is nothing in this book I could possibly say better than Solnit already has, I decided to do this review in quotes:

The definition of hope:

‘It’s important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and tremendous destruction. The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act.’

On functioning in the paradoxical world:

‘F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, “The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function,” but the summations of the state of the world often assume that it must be all one way or the other and since it is not all good it must all suck royally. Fitzgerald’s forgotten next sentence is, “One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and be determined to make them otherwise.”’

On protests against the Iraq war:

‘The dream did not last, though the moment is worth cherishing. Instead came the nightmares of burned and maimed children, bombed civilians, soldiers incinerated by depleted-uranium rounds, history itself wiped out when the United States permitted the looting of Baghdad’s National Museum and the burning of its National Library, US soldiers picked off a few at a time during the months of occupation and insurrection. The millions marching on February 15 represented something that is not yet fully realised, an extraordinary potential waiting, waiting for some catalyst to bring it into full flower. A new imagination of politics and change is already here, and I want to try and pare away what obscures it.’

On working towards that which you may never actually see:

‘There’s a wonderful parable by Jorge Luis Borges. In the last years of the thirteenth century, God tells a leopard in a cage, “You live and will die in this prison so that a man I know of may see you a certain number of times and not forget you and place your figure and symbol in a poem which has its precise place in the scheme of the universe. You suffer captivity, but you will have given a word to the poem.” The poem is the Divine Comedy; the man who sees the leopard is Dante.’

On progress:

‘…women used to make sixty-six cents to the male dollar and now we made seventy-seven cents, so what were we complaining about? It doesn’t seem like it should be so complicated to acknowledge that seventy-seven cents is better than sixty-six cents and that seventy-seven cents isn’t good enough, but the politics we have is so pathetically bipolar that we only tell this story two ways: either seventy-seven cents is a victory, and victories are points when you shut up and stop fighting; or seventy-cents is ugly, so activism accomplishes nothing and what’s the point of fighting? Both versions are defeatist because they are static. What’s missing from these two ways of telling is an ability to recognise a situation in which you are travelling and have not arrived, in which you have cause both to celebrate and to fight, in which the world is always being made and is never finished.’

On activism:

‘Activism is not a journey to the corner store, it is a plunge into the unknown. The future is always dark.’ 

 

 

Feminist TBR

For anyone who hasn’t noticed, lately I have got even more obsessed with women’s writing, specifically, women writing about feminist issues. I put this renewed obsession down to Lena Dunham’s Women of the Hour podcast and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists. It also relates to a minor incident a few weeks ago, when I was walking home by myself, late-ish at night and a random guy decided to shove his drunk friend into me, for, as far as I can tell no reason other than to frighten me. This is far from the worst creeperie I’ve experienced, but it has me angrier than usual. I suppose it’s because in an ideal world I should be to complete a less than ten minute walk from a concert venue to a youth hostel alone without incident.

I feel like reading books about feminism is a healthy way to channel the frustration.

Summaries all from Goodreads.

Men Explain Things To Me – Rebecca Solnit

41edjJkb2DL__SY344_BO1,204,203,200_‘In her comic, scathing essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” Rebecca Solnit took on what often goes wrong in conversations between men and women. She wrote about men who wrongly assume they know things and wrongly assume women don’t, about why this arises, and how this aspect of the gender wars works, airing some of her own hilariously awful encounters…This book features that now-classic essay with six perfect complements, including an examination of the great feminist writer Virginia Woolf ’s embrace of mystery, of not knowing, of doubt and ambiguity, a highly original inquiry into marriage equality, and a terrifying survey of the scope of contemporary violence against women.’

You Don’t Have to Like Me: Essays on Growing Up, Speaking Out and Finding Feminism – Alida Nugent

24611657‘Alida Nugent’s first book, Don’t Worry It Gets Worse, received terrific reviews, and her self-deprecating “everygirl” approach continues to win the Internet-savvy writer and blogger new fans. Now, she takes on one of today’s hottest cultural topics: feminism.

Nugent is a proud feminist—and she’s not afraid to say it. From the “scarlet F” thrust upon you if you declare yourself a feminist at a party to how to handle judgmental store clerks when you buy Plan B, You Don’t Have to Like Me skewers a range of cultural issues, and confirms Nugent as a star on the rise.’

 

The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats and Ex-Countries – Jessa Crispin

9780226278452‘When Jessa Crispin was thirty, she burned her settled Chicago life to the ground and took off for Berlin with a pair of suitcases and no plan beyond leaving. Half a decade later, she’s still on the road, in search not so much of a home as of understanding, a way of being in the world that demands neither constant struggle nor complete surrender.’

I heard about this book on Stuff Mom Never Told You. I really recommend listening to the episode. Jessa is a fascinating lady.

Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love and So Much More – Janet Mock

janet-mock-book-cover.jpg‘In 2011, Marie Claire magazine published a profile of Janet Mock in which she stepped forward for the first time as a trans woman. Those twenty-three hundred words were life-altering for the People.com editor, turning her into an influential and outspoken public figure and a desperately needed voice for an often voiceless community. In these pages, she offers a bold and inspiring perspective on being young, multicultural, economically challenged, and transgender in America.’ 

Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

51KOK64918L__SY344_BO1,204,203,200_‘As teenagers in a Lagos secondary school, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are leaving the country if they can. Ifemelu—beautiful, self-assured—departs for America to study. She suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships and friendships, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race. Obinze—the quiet, thoughtful son of a professor—had hoped to join her, but post-9/11 America will not let him in, and he plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London.

Years later, Obinze is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu has achieved success as a writer of an eye-opening blog about race in America. But when Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, and she and Obinze reignite their shared passion—for their homeland and for each other—they will face the toughest decisions of their lives.’

My Life on the Road – Gloria Steinem

9780679456209‘Gloria Steinem—writer, activist, organizer, and one of the most inspiring leaders in the world—now tells a story she has never told before, a candid account of how her early years led her to live an on-the-road kind of life, traveling, listening to people, learning, and creating change. She reveals the story of her own growth in tandem with the growth of an ongoing movement for equality.’

Amazing review by Ann Friedman here.