The Faraway Nearby

Book cover
Rebecca Solnit
4
Friday, Dec 1, 2017

This evocative collection of meditations emerged from a time of crisis in Solnit's life, and centers on her mother's descent into Alzheimer's and her own diagnosis of and treatment for potential cancer. Solnit's writing is fluid and meandering, flowing lyrically from thought to thought, topic to topic. Themes recur frequently and range widely: life in the arctic, decaying apricots, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Che Guevara, leprosy, The Arabian Nights, Buddhism, ice, mirrors, breath, wounds, knots, and more. Central to the entire enterprise is consideration of the nature and purpose of stories, and how telling her own has helped her heal.

Less connected than the rest is a bonus -- meditation still seems to be the best word to describe what is part story, part essay, part philosophy, part poem -- a bonus meditation that runs one line on the bottom of each page the length of the entire book: "Moths Drink the Tears of Sleeping Birds." Rather than being connected explicitly, it encapsulates the entire enterprise thematically. It concludes:

Moths drink the tears of sleeping birds. The birds sleep on, inadvertent givers. The moths fly on, enriched. We feed on sorrows, on stories, on the spaciousness they open up when they let us travel in our imagination beyond our own limits, when they dissolve the boundaries that confine us and urge us to extend the potentialities of our imperfect, broken, incomplete selves. Those apricots my brother brought me in three big cardboard boxes long ago, were they tears too? And this book, is it tears? Who drinks your tears, who has your wings, who hears your stories?

A couple of other passages that jumped out at me, librarian and pusher of stories:

Libraries are sanctuaries from the world and command centers into it . . . They are, ideally, places where nothing happens and where everything that has happened is stored up to be remembered and relived, the place where the world is folded up into boxes of paper. Every book is a door that opens onto another world . . . and a library is a Milky Way of worlds . . . All imaginative, engrossing books are landscapes into which readers vanish.

The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinates. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another.

Something wonderful happens to you and you instantly look back over your life and see it as a series of fortunate events stretching off into the distance like mountain peaks. Something terrible happens and your life has always been a litany of woe. The present rearranges the past. We never tell the story whole because a life isn’t a story; it’s a whole Milky Way of events and we are forever picking out constellations from it to fit who and where we are.

The Faraway Nearby is a moving and satisfying book.

Chris K.

Written by Chris K.

Fun fact: Experts estimate that the average cruising airspeed velocity of an unladen European Swallow is roughly 11 meters per second, or 24 miles an hour.