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Asking the questions that matter

May 9, 2012

Author Rebecca Solnit’s book, A Paradise Built in Hell, asks perhaps the most elementally human question of all—and comes up with a surprising answer

Most of us have wondered how we would react in the event of a terrible disaster or tragedy.
Would I run, would I stay, would I lead, would I fight? Would I die for what I believe in, would I die to save someone I love, or, even, someone I don’t love?
The most elemental human question: What am I made of?
Common wisdom has it that in times of disaster, most people are weak. They run, they loot, they fight, they kill, they fail. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, this wisdom says, a kind of social Darwinism that paints a picture of human nature as weak and self-centered.
But author Rebecca Solnit wrote a book that turns this common wisdom on its head, a book that postulates that in disasters, the vast majority of people react with compassion, courage and even genuine love. Spanning the world and a century of time, looking at disasters from Hurricane Katrina to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Solnit weaves a compelling picture of how ordinary people respond to disasters.
What she finds is this: not only do most people react to emergencies and/or disasters with compassion, courage and love, they also do it with a kind of pure and unadulterated joy. That joy, she writes, comes from an elemental human hunger to be of use, to do something meaningful, to band together for the common good, all of which are far too rare in many people’s every day lives.
The book, A Paradise Built in Hell, The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, has taken the country by storm, garnering critical acclaim and landing on dozens of Best Book of the Year lists. It’s now a “California Reads” selected book for the Mono County Public Libraries, with a visit from Solnit herself scheduled in Mammoth and Bridgeport on May 15 and May 16 respectively (see details below).
Being of service, banding together for a common good is as hardwired in our genes—or more so—than anything Darwin might of said about humans being essentially self-centered, Solnit said.
She backed up her premise with interviews and examples with hundreds of people who have survived a disaster. She wrote about the young black men who risked their lives to rescue the elderly and babies in boats in a flooded New Orleans and how over blown the media accounts of looting and murder were. She wrote about the survivors of 9/11 who didn’t panic in the elevators of the Twin Towers, who banded together, hand on shoulder, and made heir way down a black and smoke-filled elevator. She backed her book up with nearly a century of sociological research, showing that almost every disaster expert believes that the myth of the self-centered, opportunistic, individual acting only for their own best interest in disasters is just that, a myth.
Mostly, she wrote of the joy that suffuses her subject’s faces when they talked to her, joy that seems to be at odds with the terrible experience they lived through.
“It was the joy on their faces that surprised me,” she wrote. “And, with those I read rather than spoke to, it was the joy in their words. It should not be so, is not so, in the familiar version of what disaster brings, and yet it is there.”
It is this joy that made her look more deeply. This should not be, that people find joy in disasters, she wrote. That it speaks to something deeply wrong with our culture, even as it speaks about something deeply good about human nature.
“The joy matters as a measure of otherwise neglected desires, desires for public life and civil society, for inclusion, purpose and power,” she wrote.
By the time the book is done, Solnit wrote a powerful treatise on the deep deficits of modern culture; of its emphasis on individuals to the exclusion of the group, of its poverty of imagination in providing a meaningful social life for most people.
“We are like the soldiers of wars who find meaning and community in that most horrific of experiences that is missing in daily life, and even find themselves longing once again for that ‘paradise built in hell,’” she wrote.
Beliefs matter, she continued, and the belief that most humans are brutes in the face of real evidence to the contrary hurts communities and cultures by stripping us of our ability to create different alternatives that would bring meaning to our lives.
A Paradise Built in Hell is available at the Mono County Library branches.


Here’s some of the events going on this month in Mono County this month connected to the themes of A Paradise Built in Hell:
• Read the book: You can get free copies of A Paradise Built in Hell from several Mono County libraries through the California Reads program that brings selected books to participating communities across the state. Last month, the California Reads program brought author Aron Ralston, the man who cut off his arm to free himself after a climbing accident, to Bishop and distributed copies of his book throughout both counties. This month, the program provides dozens of copies of Solnit’s book. Call 760-943-4777 for more information.
• May 10, 12 p.m., Mammoth Lakes Library, brown bag book club lunch discusses Solnit’s book at Mammoth Lakes Library
6 p.m., Mammoth Lakes Library, Mono County Public Health Officer Dr. Rick Johnson will talk about possible Mono County disasters.
• May 11, 6 p.m.: Mammoth Lakes Library, free concert to kickoff the book. Refreshments will be served and there will be a free String Theory concert.
• May 15, 5:30 p.m. Author Rebeccas Solnit will be at the Mammoth Lakes Library to discuss the book.
7 p.m. A film about the San Francisco earthquake will be shown
• May 16, 3 p.m.: Solnot will be at the Bridgeport Public Library to discuss her book
• May 17, 6 p.m., Red Cross Disaster Preparedness Class, Mammoth Lakes Library.
• May 18, 3 p.m., How to cook when the power goes out, aimed at kids, Mammoth Lakes Library
• May 23, 6 p.m., Red Cross Disaster preparedness Class, Bridgeport Library

There are also several more activities related to this theme planned for the libraries. Go to: for more information or call 760-934-4777.

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