I have just completed reading my fourth book by Rebecca Solnit, which speaks volumes in itself. For most authors I may read a second offering once in while, so when I read the continued efforts by the same writer, well that's says something...
My latest completed Solnit reading is River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (2003), which considering the timeliness could have been written yesterday. Solnit examines the life and times of Muybridge (1830-1904), who is mostly remembered as the man who was hired by Leland Stanford (the Stanford University Stanford) who photographed a running horse in order to determine whether all the horse's hooves at some point were not touching the ground. Solnit uses Muybridge, who was born in England but arrived in California in 1855 as a way to look at the effects of technology (the telegraph, the locomotive, and photography/motion pictures) in the second half of the 19th century and how California was as the epicenter of those changes --- and still is with the emergence of Silicon Valley. In short these technologies “annihilated space and time,” just as it continues to do today. The book is part biography, part history and part a thought piece on technology past and present. It's neither a condemnation or acclamation for technology, Solnit simply forces you to think about the flux we live in – past and present.
For example, recently when Denise and I were in Amsterdam, we took a day trip with a personal guide to visit some of the outlying towns. While we drove, our guide, a retired school teacher, gave us the history of the land, which was reclaimed from the sea, by an intricate systems of dikes, canals and windmills that pumped the water. Later you are standing inside the top of a working windmill you truly get a sense of the power of those wind-powered turbines.
These windmills were also used to saw lumber, which allowed the Dutch to build ships faster than anyone else, which lead to their dominating navy ( with control Dutch West Indies, New York, Dutch East Indies) and spearheaded their 17th century golden age. Such is the far reaching affect of a technology. It happened then as it happens now, a seemingly simple technology or change can have enormous effects and how we approach the world. And to what end?
Near the closing of her book, Solnit quotes film critic David Denby who provides a peek into the future. “The revolution will end by changing the nature of time itself,” says Denby, “thereby altering the way we live, work, seek pleasure, and gather together: We shall achieve simultaneity, ending the gap between desire and fulfillment; we shall no longer wait.”
Since I mentioned other Solnit books, I've read I will pass on her other worthy efforts.
- Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories; Wild Possibilities (2004). Written during the dark days following George W. Bush's election and the attack on the World Trade Center this thoughtful little book re-thinks how change comes about. We think that it comes top down (like from the President or from laws), but Solnit gives numerous examples throughout recent history that is it is people outside the center who actually can and do facilitate change, albeit slowly and not without setbacks.
- Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2000). A fascinating look at the history of foot travel from early times to present day (it even answers the question:Which came first? Learning to walk upright which developed our brains or is it vice versa?) If you like to walk or think, this book is for you. It's the book of hers I recommend the most.
- A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2005). A book of her related personal essays on what it means to be lost (besides just living in the moment). My favorite pieces were on how old Country-Western songs were like short stories and the artist Yves Klein.