The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit: There are other ways of telling

One summer, Rebecca Solnit received an enigmatic gift: a hundred pounds of apricots, harvested from the garden of her mother’s former house. That summer, Solnit discovered that she had pre-cancerous cells in her breast – a prelude to major surgery. In le

The Faraway Nearby
Rebecca Solnit
Granta, 272pp, £16.99

One summer, Rebecca Solnit received an enigmatic gift: a hundred pounds of apricots, harvested from the garden of her mother’s former house. Her mother, with whom she’d had a difficult relationship since childhood, was slipping irrevocably into Alzheimer’s disease. For the past two years, she had been increasingly forgetful; at last, her children decided that the time had come to put her in a home. That summer, Solnit discovered that she had pre-cancerous cells in her breast – a prelude to major surgery.

In less original hands, this would be the beginning of a misery memoir or a memoir of illness and recovery, one of those straight - forward narratives that convert disorder into a gratifying tidiness. Not here. Solnit, an activist and writer whose best-known work is Wanderlust: a History of Walking and who has written 13 well-regarded and intricately constructed works of cultural criticism, is profoundly antagonistic to that kind of formulaic production.

Instead, she takes the apricot summer as a way of reflecting on stories: their eerie facility for both liberating and imprisoning the storyteller.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live, or to justify taking lives, even our own,” she writes, “tell ourselves stories that save us and stories that are the quicksand in which we thrash and the well in which we drown.” Some of the stories through which she voyages are personal: her surgery, the long, antagonistic relationship with her mother, the death of one friend and the birth of another’s premature baby (which occasions a walk down a row of incubators, each containing “little flayed rabbits”).

Some concern the lives of strangers, from Che Guevara to Ashley Smith, a meth addict taken hostage by a mass murderer. Others deal with a wide variety of charismatic cultural objects, among them Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the lovely Dutch tradition of vanitas paintings and the journals of Arctic explorers.

This roving voice is further complicated by rapidly shifting physical locations: San Francisco, Iceland, the Grand Canyon. The resulting fragmentation is undoubtedly deliberate. Solnit is determined to replicate the porousness, instability and incoherence of everyday existence, “the loose threads, the strange dreams, the forgettings and misrememberings . . . the pantheon of dei ex machinaand the companionability of ghosts”, adding emphatically of the realist tradition: “There are other ways of telling.”

There are but even bricolage is an art requiring strict aesthetic controls. Occasionally, Solnit’s awesome, exacting attentiveness seems to wander. Stories jerk into other stories; threads are severed and never resumed.

A powerful section on the protest of Burmese monks opens moments after Solnit’s physical arrival in Iceland, returning us to San Francisco, the city she just left. Perhaps this is supposed to replicate an experience described later, of blundering through a labyrinth in the dark. However, it also suggests insufficient editing and comes at a risk of permanently unsettling the reader.

The phrase “the faraway nearby” (a coinage by Georgia O’Keeffe) is a kind of code for Solnit’s main objective, which is to illuminate the ways in which stories can nourish empathy, drawing us closer, by way of the imagination, to the distant, disfavoured and impoverished. This desire to inculcate empathy has always been present in Solnit’s work as an ethical concern but here it feels acutely, even painfully, personal.

Unsatisfactory mothers have cast a long shadow over literature and it becomes increasingly evident that Solnit, a writer whose work manifests generosity, grew from poor soil. As she scrapes away decades of accu - mulated bitterness, she recalls in both tone and content two of America’s more interesting poets, Anne Carson and Sharon Olds (the line referring to “the pale pansy of her face under a jaunty little veil; if I could have warned her, I might have cancelled my own existence” is particularly Oldsian, right down to the species of flower). Both have wrestled with another faraway-nearby question, concerning how specific one should be when making art out of the travails of the self.

Olds prefers the microscope, Carson a gaze that spans millennia and continents. Solnit, always a voyager of large terrains, here seems sometimes hobbled by her own story and sometimes to o keen to shuck it off and escape into what she has called elsewhere the blue of distance.

This is understandable and though it sometimes makes her labyrinth of stories a hard journey, it imbues it with a sense of urgency. As the seasoned activist knows to her cost, it’s easy to develop empathy for the distant other; far harder to apply it to the people with whom one is intimately entangled. Perhaps the best way of approach - ing The Faraway Nearby is as a work in progress – signs and way posts from a road still being travelled.

Olivia Laing is the author of “To the River” (Canongate, £7.99)

Boxes of apricots waiting to be transported in the Atlas mountains. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 03 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Christians

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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