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Rebecca Solnit wanders into the territory of self-knowledge

Rebecca Solnit

Jim Herrington/Courtesy of Viking Penguin

The Faraway Nearby
Rebecca Solnit

Early in The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit describes a transformative road trip taken with a dear friend. The two women, both in their 20s at the time, ostensibly drove all the way from California to New Mexico with the sole purpose of gaining access to a darkroom, though, upon reflection, Solnit realized that travelling itself was purpose enough. "Wandering," she writes, "was our real work."

Solnit has written with uncommon eloquence about the pleasures and necessities of wandering, most notably in Wanderlust: A History of Walking and in the more personal A Field Guide to Getting Lost, a weave of autobiography, cultural criticism, philosophical essay and history.

As much a literary and literal wanderer as W.G. Sebald or Robert Walser, Solnit's writing is founded in discoveries made and found things. Resistant to synopsis or categorization, The Faraway Nearby speaks to the same rigorously errant and open-hearted spirit that informed Field Guide. It is a book gloriously lost in a vast and seemingly incompatible array of subjects, and it is, to be sure, a kind of performance in which the author traverses a high wire and rarely stumbles.

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"There are other ways of telling," Solnit declares, and she seems determined to find them. What connects Buddhism to breast cancer or Iceland to 100 pounds of apricots emerges only through Solnit's poetic suturing of ideas to form a thesis that itself eludes definition, something more felt than articulated. Something to do with empathy.

For all its idiosyncratic transitions and striking formal peculiarities (the book features a discreet, unbroken line of text that runs along the bottom of each page like a single streaming footnote – or a horizon line along which our eye can travel), The Faraway Nearby exhibits Solnit's gifts as a storyteller, regaling readers with tales of explorer Peter Freuchen living in a cave made of his own breath, Ernesto (Che) Guevara discovering his vocation while traversing South America, or the birth of a volcanic island in the North Atlantic.

Solnit begins her new book with some thoughts of the essentiality of storytelling itself: "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." Stories, she warns, can master us – until we learn how to listen. She invokes Scheherazade, who night after night in The Arabian Nights tells stories to the sultan to keep him from killing her.

Tying The Faraway Nearby to the central theme of Field Guide is the book's emphasis on story as geography, a conceit central to Solnit's worldview. Places, Solnit feels, are "more reliable than human beings." They "give us continuity, something to return to, and offer a familiarity that allows some portion of our lives to remain connected and coherent. They give us an expansive scale in which our troubles are set into context, in which the largeness of the world is a balm to loss, trouble and ugliness. And distant places give us refuge in territories where our own histories aren't so deeply entrenched and we can imagine other stories, other selves, or just drink up quiet and respite."

But The Faraway Nearby is also a survey of hidden geographies, of the terra incognita locked within our bodies. Solnit writes of her own unspecified illness and the arduous process of treatment. "In this country, you are yourself the terrain, and you are travelling toward or away from your mortality." The book's most consistent – and most moving – thread involves Solnit's elderly mother and her gradual succumbing to Alzheimer's, a disease that reduced her own sense of having a story. Coping with the erasure of her mother's memories and general health prompted what Solnit describes as an "era of patching and bailing the sinking boat." It also marked an unspoken truce between a troubled mother once "devoured by envy" and a daughter who, having moved away at the age of 17, had long ago learned how to be alone in the world – to be with herself.

The associate structure of The Faraway Nearby allows Solnit to pay homage to many artists she clearly reveres: Ana Teresa Fernandez and her ice stilettos; Roni Horn and her Library of Water; Georgia O'Keeffe, whose manner of signing off letters gives Solnit's book its title; Wu Daozi, vanishing into his own paintings; and Mary Shelley, whose Frankenstein offers us the monster as the repressed self – another of Solnit's key themes. "Elaborate are the means to hide from yourself … the labyrinths in which we hide the minotaurs who have our faces."

As noted above, empathy seems to compose The Faraway Nearby's central cause, the burning plea that keeps alight its candle in the darkness. Understanding of others is inconceivable without understanding of self, and vice versa.

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"You are not yourself," Solnit assures us near the book's close, "you are crowds of others, you are as leaky a vessel as was ever made." Travel to distant lands has always been a dependable route to deeper understanding of others, but another, more accessible place where we learn empathy, where we are reminded of the porousness of self, is literature, most especially literature as invested with intelligence and daring, compassion and poetry, as this one. Such literature forms a bridge, upon which otherness inspires awe rather than fear, identification rather than alienation. As Solnit herself puts it: "Books are solitudes in which we meet."

José Teodoro is a Toronto-based critic and playwright.

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