Wi15: Rebecca Solnit on Nonexistence

Rebecca Solnit
(photo: ABA/Two Cats Communications)

"I am more than cognizant that the reason why I make a living writing books is because my books have been taken care of," said author Rebecca Solnit during an afternoon keynote session yesterday at Winter Institute 2020.

Throughout her talk Solnit discussed not only her upcoming memoir Recollections of My Nonexistence (Viking) but also her relationship to bookstores and libraries, the role of reading as a transformative, liberating act and the ways in which women are often robbed of their voices.

"The first thing I'm here to say is thank you," continued Solnit. "But I also want to celebrate what we're all trying to do and what you do specifically. Not just taking care of me and my books but taking care of something grander than any of us."

Choosing which books to take up and champion is both an aesthetic and ethical act, Solnit said, especially in a culture and time troubled by "demagoguery and propaganda" as well as slackness and distractedness. And in an age of "glib false certainties" bookstores and libraries are "temples of resistance," fighting in defense of "language itself" and the simple fact that words have meanings.

Someone choosing to read, she said, is seeking to become quiet enough to allow another's thoughts to enter their head, which in an age of distractedness is a spiritual as well as political act. Even purely escapist reading, she added, has become a kind of resistance.

On the subject of what she meant by nonexistence, Solnit explained that she was referring both to her time spent living in daydreams, reveries, libraries and bookstores, as well as the much "grimmer" sense of the ways in which society attempts to silence women, ranging from being talked over or ignored to being threatened with violence or killed.

Solnit said that in her earlier feminist work, she'd never gone into great detail about how "deeply and profoundly" society's "ambient" violence against women affected her, but in Recollections of My Nonexistence, she wanted to go into the subjective consequences of that violence as deeply as she could.

She emphasized that what she wants for society is not a world where men aren’t heard but a world where women are heard just as loudly and just as frequently, with as much consequence. To her, feminism has always been a "project to liberate everybody," for which books are instrumental in that they invite readers to be other kinds of things.

"I think anybody who is involved in books is involved in that transformation for the better," Solnit said. "My own life has been a drop in that ocean."

Recalling how delighted she was to see books by writers like R.O. Kwon and Tommy Orange on a prominent display table at a bookstore in the Denver Airport recently, Solnit argued that we are in the midst of a "golden age of writing," and she thanked all of the booksellers and publishers present for helping make space for a "democracy of stories" to flourish.

"At its best it's a liberation project," said Solnit of writing and bookselling. --Alex Mutter

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