A paradise built in hell The extraordinary communities that arise in disasters

Rebecca Solnit

Book - 2009

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New York, N.Y. : Viking 2009.
Physical Description
x, 353 p. ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
Main Author
Rebecca Solnit (-)
Review by Booklist Reviews

*Starred Review* Life-and-death disasters put us to the test. Do we help others, or are we concerned only with ourselves? Are we bewildered by abrupt, terrifying change, or do we feel a giddy sense of liberation? Solnit scrutinizes the aftermath of five major catastrophes in search of clues to our core selves. Although she in no way diminishes the tragedies of large-scale disasters, her focus is on the great majority of people who are unharmed, resolute, and generous in their efforts to aid those in need. A creative, independent-minded intellectual and gracefully provocative writer with 10 previous books, Solnit describes the earthquakes in San Francisco in 1906 and Mexico City in 1985, the "largest manmade explosion in history before nuclear weapons" in Halifax in 1917 (an astonishing chapter), September 11 in New York City, and Katrina-slammed New Orleans. In each case, she tracks down vivid eyewitness accounts and analyzes the way each crisis launched or accelerated social change. Through forays into philosophy, religion, Hollywood, carnivals, and revolutions, along with a glimpse into the future of climate-change-generated disasters, Solnit forges a fresh vision of our capacity for rising from the rubble to cast off "dismal societies" and create paradise. Copyright 2009 Booklist Reviews.

Review by Choice Reviews

This is an important book. Major disasters obviously create chaotic conditions, but contrary to popular images of a Hobbesian world of individual survival amid panic and disorder, Solnit argues that the immediate hours and days following disasters are marked by altruism and even joy. That joy comes not from the event itself--which is obviously terrible--but from the spirit of community and sense of purpose that emerges as individuals struggle to help themselves and others survive. Using examples drawn from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the 1917 munitions explosion in Halifax, the London Blitz, the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, the attacks of 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina, Solnit highlights again and again that rather than being scared, disordered, and looking for authority figures to guide them, individual citizens step up in times of crisis and, in doing so, provide glimpses of a different social order defined by concern for the welfare of fellow citizens. The best evidence of panic, Solnit argues, comes from elites whose foundations of authority are challenged by the disaster. Solnit is a terrific writer, and students at all levels will find the book accessible. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries. Copyright 2010 American Library Association.

Review by Library Journal Reviews

Prize-winning author Solnit (A Field Guide to Getting Lost) delivers an insightful glimpse into the compelling human interest stories behind five major disasters: the San Fransisco earthquake of 1906, the Halifax explosion of 1917, Mexico City's 1985 earthquake, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina. But more than just the stories, she turns her attention to the larger subject of the sociology of disasters and the incredible community spirit that can arise amid disaster. In contrast to media portrayals of negative human behavior in times of distress, Solnit believes that humans have an intrinsic need to help each other and work together in communities forged by disaster. These surreal situations demonstrate how deeply most of us desire connection, participation, altruism, and purposefulness. Thus the startling joy in disasters. Solnit wonders if some of these ephemeral moments could be recaptured in our normal day-to-day routines, thus enhancing our sense of community. VERDICT Despite wandering into some murky what-ifs, this book offers a timely study in community during these uncertain times.-Holly S. Hebert, Rochester Coll., Rochester Hills, MI [Page 115]. Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.

Review by Publishers Weekly Reviews

Natural and man-made disasters can be "utopias" that showcase human solidarity and point the way to a freer society, according this stimulating contrarian study. Solnit (River of Shadows) reproves civil defense planners, media alarmists and Hollywood directors who insist that disasters produce terrified mobs prone to looting, murder and cannibalism unless controlled by armed force and government expertise. Surveying disasters from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, she shows that the typical response to calamity is spontaneous altruism, self-organization and mutual aid, with neighbors and strangers calmly rescuing, feeding and housing each other. Indeed, the main problem in such emergencies, she contends, is the "elite panic" of officials who clamp down with National Guardsmen and stifling regulations. Solnit falters when she generalizes her populist brief into an anarchist critique of everyday society that lapses into fuzzy what-ifs and uplifting volunteer testimonials. Still, this vividly written, cogently argued book makes a compelling—and timely—case for the ability of ordinary people to collectively surmount the direst of challenges. (Sept.) [Page 119]. Copyright 2009 Reed Business Information.

Review by Publisher Summary 1

A National Book Critics Circle-winning writer explores the phenomenon through which people become resourceful and altruistic after a disaster and communities often reflect a shared sense of purpose, analyzing such events as the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the September 11 attacks, and Hurricane Katrina.

Review by Publisher Summary 2

Explores the phenomenon through which people become resourceful and altruistic after a disaster and communities reflect a shared sense of purpose, analyzing events ranging from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to Hurricane Katrina.

Review by Publisher Summary 3

A startling investigation of what people do in disasters and why it matters Why is it that in the aftermath of a disaster? whether manmade or natural?people suddenly become altruistic, resourceful, and brave? What makes the newfound communities and purpose many find in the ruins and crises after disaster so joyous? And what does this joy reveal about ordinarily unmet social desires and possibilities? In A Paradise Built in Hell, award-winning author Rebecca Solnit explores these phenomena, looking at major calamities from the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco through the 1917 explosion that tore up Halifax, Nova Scotia, the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. She examines how disaster throws people into a temporary utopia of changed states of mind and social possibilities, as well as looking at the cost of the widespread myths and rarer real cases of social deterioration during crisis. This is a timely and important book from an acclaimed author whose work consistently locates unseen patterns and meanings in broad cultural histories.