The Faraway Nearby

June, the month of commencements and weddings, of longer days, of elective reading and budding travel plans, is a good time for reflection on where you are and where you want to go. Rebecca Solnit, essayist, social historian, cultural critic, activist, and author of twelve hard-to-categorize books, including the much-loved Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2000) and A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2005), is a worthy, stimulating companion on meditative excursions. Her new book, The Faraway Nearby, at once memoir, literary criticism, and inspirational touchstone, is a meandering yet purposeful exploration of how we spin and follow stories, and of how they can lead us on a journey toward self-definition and empathy.

The Faraway Nearby is a difficult book to do justice to with a simple synopsis, because its very mission is to encourage you to lose (and find) yourself in its labyrinthine paths. But Solnit provides a helpful précis: “Pared back to its bare bones, this book is a history of an emergency and the stories that kept me company then, but what is an emergency?”

The emergency or “accelerated phase of life” in question was actually threefold: her mother’s descent into dementia, which, once accommodated, actually improved what had always been a difficult mother-daughter relationship; Solnit’s bitter breakup with an unsupportive boyfriend; and her “medical adventure” with a potentially dangerous carcinoma in situ. All this took place in what she refers to as “my city” (San Francisco), in a year she also (more frustratingly) chooses not to pinpoint. Through it all, she found distractions, escape, food for thought, and metaphorical import in a bumper crop of apricots, a summer in Iceland as the first international resident at the Library of Water, and subjects as diverse as fairy tales, Che Guevara, leprosy, cannibalism, Frankenstein, The Arabian Nights, Buddhism, and Virginia Woolf.

Her core focus is on stories and how they’re told: “What’s your story? It’s all in the telling. Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice,” she begins. Stories also involve empathy and perspective: “We are all the heroes of our own stories, and one of the arts of perspective is to see yourself small on the stage of another’s story, to see the vast expanse of the world that is not about you, and to see your power, to make your life, to make others, or break them, to tell stories rather than be told by them.”

In patiently teasing out several versions of the story of Atagutaluk, a Nunavut woman in far northern Canada who ate the bodies of her husband and children in order to survive a terrible winter in 1905, Solnit demonstrates how a single story can take multiple forms. “To tell a story is always to translate the raw material into a specific shape,” Solnit writes. You won’t soon forget the astonishing coda to Atagutaluk’s tale, which concerns the Danish-Jewish explorer Peter Freuchen, who wrote about her several times. Trapped in a sealed-off ice cave during a blizzard in 1923, he saved himself by shaping the only raw material at hand — his own excrement — into a tool that, once frozen, he could use to chip his way out.

Solnit’s associations may seem random, but The Faraway Nearby is as precisely crafted as the raft on which she finally explores the Grand Canyon. The book’s parabolic structure is a marvel, worthy of discussion: It begins with “Apricots,” arcing through chapters headed “Mirrors,” “Ice,” “Flight,” “Breath,” and “Wound” before bending around the middle chapter, “Knot,” unwinding, and then reversing the lineup back again to “Apricots.”

Themes resurface repeatedly, refracted via fresh angles. This leads to the occasional redundancy, but more often the result is an intriguing connection between seemingly disparate ideas. A passage about young Che Guevara’s empathy for lepers and later disassociation from others’ feelings leads to a fascinating report on leprosy, which in turn leads to Solnit’s realization that the disease’s characteristic numbness is a useful way for thinking about her troubled pre-Alzheimer’s relationship with her mother, who “had gone numb in some way, so that I became the limb that could not be felt.”

To tie her seemingly random mental meanderings together, Solnit employs a sort of fourteenth chapter that runs in a single line along the bottom of each page like the sutures that bind books and the narrative threads that organize stories. Neither footnote nor commentary, this literal subtext spills over between pages and chapters, a rambling, somewhat affected distraction based on a scientific report on moths that drink the tears of sleeping birds, a metaphor for how we feed on sorrow. As a curiosity and unifying commentary, the marvelous gulls that take flight when you flip the pages of Terry Tempest Williams’s When Women Were Birds are far more effective. Williams’s book, along with Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, both share Solnit’s thoughtfulness and deep connection with the natural world.

One way to discuss Solnit is by cherry-picking quotes — aphorisms, really, that occasionally flirt with greeting card triteness but remain provocative. “Difficulty is always a school, though learning is optional,” she writes about the challenges she faced in her year of multiple crises. The mounds of apricots her brother harvested from their mother’s abandoned yard that summer presented a more manageable urgency than her other problems, a race against time and decay, which she could win by transforming them into jams, chutneys, and liqueur. “Maybe preserves are where a historian’s urges meet a cook’s capacities,” she comments charmingly.

Most of all, you’ll want to zero in on her reflections on storytelling and books, her twin passions, which, while not entirely new, are rarely articulated so cogently: “Books are solitudes in which we meet,” she writes. “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 germinated.”

The Faraway Nearby takes its title from Georgia O’Keeffe’s sign-off on letters to loved ones after she moved to rural New Mexico, expressing both emotional closeness and physical distance in one swoop: “from the faraway nearby.” Solnit explains, “It was a way to measure physical and psychic geography together.” But it is also an apt image for what stories do for us: bring us close together and take us far away — all without moving anything but our hearts and minds.