Subjects that the author and essayist Rebecca Solnit has written about, some at considerable length, include Irish history, atlases, Alzheimer's, a traveling medical clinic, natural disasters, urban planning, tortoises, walking, gentrification, Yosemite National Park and Apple Inc.
''There's something interdisciplinary at best and wildly wandering at worst about how I think,'' she told me recently over the phone from San Francisco, where she lives and works. ''I am interested in almost everything, and it can sometimes seem like a burden.'' She cited Virginia Woolf and Henry David Thoreau as the writers most important to her: ''Each of them wrote exquisitely about experiential, immediate encounters with the tangible world but could also be very powerful political polemicists. And the arc of their work describes a space in which you can be both.''
Those who have been reading her idiosyncratic writing since it was first published, in the mid-1980s, would agree that Solnit's work is roaming, and would also say that it is rigorous and admirably self-directed in its scope and engrossments. She's written several books about the American West, for example, including 1994's ''Savage Dreams: A Journey Into the Hidden Wars of the American West'' and 2003's ''River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West.'' But in the past few years, Solnit has acquired a new audience — younger, mostly female, more likely to read an article online than in print, and largely unaware of the strangeness or scale of her career.
It began with her 2008 essay ''Men Explain Things to Me,'' which was born of a now-famous anecdote: In 2003, Solnit was at a party in a chalet above Aspen, Colo., when the host of the party, upon learning that Solnit was an author, insisted on summarizing a book he had read a review of, ignoring her friend's efforts to inform him that Solnit herself had written it. The essay is credited with inspiring the hashtag-ready term ''mansplaining,'' which is now used around the world; it's on T-shirts, on Twitter, in the most casual of conversations. In 2014, Solnit turned ''Men Explain Things to Me'' into a book, which has, to date, sold about 90,000 copies. In a series of personal but unsentimental essays, she gave succinct shorthand to a familiar female experience that before had gone unarticulated, perhaps even unrecognized. Like Tom Wolfe's ''radical chic'' or Nathan Rabin's ''manic pixie dream girl,'' ''mansplaining'' quickly became a term as illuminating as it was descriptive.
Not two years later, Solnit surfaced again, this time as a cultural consoler. In March, 2016, Haymarket Books, her small, nonprofit publisher, reissued ''Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities,'' which had originally been published in 2004, to relatively little fanfare, as a response to the Bush administration. Part history of progressive success stories, part extended argument for hope as a catalyst for action, the slim book became a kind of bible for people heartbroken by last year's election outcome. On Nov. 10, 2016, she took to Facebook, opening with the line, ''Got hope? Mine is free to you here,'' and including a link to a download of the book, an offer that was taken up over 30,000 times in one week. ''Hope in the Dark'' contains discussion of everything from the Zapatistas to weather forecasting to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and is written in an especially epigrammatic prose that reads like self-help for intellectuals: ''People have always been good at imagining the end of the world, which is much easier to picture than the strange sidelong paths of change in a world without end.''
Solnit the oddball essayist was suddenly and unexpectedly a progressive icon, a wise female elder. Her writings on the environment, gender, human rights and violence against women, all of which went back decades, scattered among her many other subjects, seemed suddenly and remarkably prescient. Her work — both new and old — is much discussed on Twitter and cited in op-eds, and the books themselves — she's published 10 in the last 10 years — hold prime real estate at bookstores across the country. Solnit writes a column for Harper's Magazine and contributes regularly to The Guardian and the London Review of Books, as well as to Literary Hub, a website that she, at 56 and widely celebrated, has no reason to even know exists. She agrees to interviews, and posts long, magazine-ready treatises on Facebook, which are read and shared, effusively and often histrionically, by her 100,000-plus followers.
In other words, Solnit is a certain kind of celebrity, if a reluctant one. ''I feel that it's really important to not depend on all this in any sense and not let this define my worth or work,'' she said on the phone. ''I wrote 'Hope in the Dark' 14 years ago. Am I somehow better or smarter now than I was then?'' The answer, of course, is no. Strange as it is to say, Solnit's newfound popularity reveals more about her readers than it does her. That the book, and her other suddenly timely work, was not written in the last several months, but rather years prior, makes its ideas seem even truer, giving it the veneer of sacred text. She has become a Cassandra figure of the left, her writing, which seems magically to have long ago said the things that many Americans now most want to hear, consumed as both balm and rallying cry.
Solnit, of course, isn't the first author of ideas that now seem eerily predictive. Figures from recent literary pasts are often reclaimed as voices of cultural presents. Three paragraphs published in 1998 by the late philosopher Richard Rorty, which seem to have foretold the outcome of the 2016 election, went viral last fall, sending sales of the scholarly book in which they originally appeared, ''Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America,'' soaring. Eileen Myles's decades-old poetry has been seized upon lately by readers newly curious about and sensitive to discussions of gender fluidity. The art critic and novelist Chris Kraus, once an obscure favorite of female bloggers, is now the inspiration for a critically acclaimed Amazon show. In Japan, Susan Sontag's recently translated work has become, 13 years after her death, surprisingly popular, looked to as interpretive of the bewildering contradictions of American politics.
Paul Yamazaki, the head book buyer at City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, which published Solnit's first book in 1991, adds the frank, genre-defying works of Kathy Acker and Jane Bowles to the list, but can't quite conjure a unifying theory of what all of these authors share. ''I wish I had one!'' he laughed over the phone. ''I'd be a much better bookseller if I did.'' It's worth noting, however, that these belatedly embraced writers seem to be mostly female. Perhaps it's because no one listens to them the first time they speak.
There's another reason, too, that we look to the past for our current intellectual decipherers and idols. In the Trump era, Solnit, who writes against corruption of all kinds — environmental, political, social — seems herself wholly uncorrupted: by these sorts of discussions of commercial popularity; by the harried activity of online life; by the social spheres of Washington, D.C., and New York City; by the aesthetic fetishization that so many women writers are subject to. ''If you think of a kind of ecology of ideas, there are more than enough people telling us how horrific and terrible and bad everything is, and I don't really need to join that project,'' she said. ''There's a whole other project of trying to counterbalance that — sometimes we do win and this is how it worked in the past.'' She continued, ''Change is often unpredictable and indirect. We don't know the future. We've changed the world many times, and remembering that, that history, is really a source of power to continue and it doesn't get talked about nearly enough.''
For years, Solnit has been traveling with photographer friends to Lake Powell, a massive reservoir on the central border of Utah and Arizona that was formerly a series of magnificent sandstone gorges known as Glen Canyon. She has written about the awe-inspiring industriousness that is responsible for the lake — its creation, by damming the Colorado River, began in the late 1950s, and it took 17 years to fill to capacity — but also about the hubris that imbues it; it is, she says, ''failing quite spectacularly,'' with water levels dropping significantly over the last two decades.
The excursions come as a relief. ''Writing about the politics of this moment sort of feels like being stranded in the shallows, and means not writing about deeper cultural forces and longer timeframes in history,'' she said. As the water levels of Lake Powell have dropped, the Colorado River has begun to re-emerge in some places. ''It's not exactly hopeful,'' Solnit said. ''But it's something that's neither victory nor defeat. That's really interesting to me.''
This article appeared in The New York Times, August 8, 2017.
August 10, 201