It’s easy to see why Rebecca Solnit’s book Hope in the Dark has become an independent bookstore bestseller in the months since Donald Trump won the election. After all, it’s a book written by one of our smartest cultural critics about finding hope in difficult political times. Readers know they can trust Solnit to not be too Pollyannaish in her conclusions about hope. She’s physically incapable of offering a bromide, or a cliché, or an unsupported premise. And Hope in the Dark is a slender book that offers an incredibly deep investigation into the idea of survival in dark political times.
But context is everything, here, and the fact that this book is from 2004, at the strongest point of the Bush presidency, creates some problems for the modern reader. While George W. Bush’s presidency offered many crises of its own, it would be obtuse to claim that Trump’s presidency is analogous to Bush’s.
George W. Bush committed crimes in his presidency. His administration obfuscated the facts in a coordinated effort to lead us into war. His mismanagement led to the destruction of a major American city during Hurricane Katrina. He destroyed the American economy. He nearly ruined the nation itself.
But there’s something banal about Bush when compared to Donald Trump. Bush was just the mediocre son of a president who accidentally rose to power. Trump, at this early date in his presidency, is at best a chaos agent and at worst a complete and utter moron. He could likely be a Russian puppet. He is unfit to be president on multiple levels, and he has surrounded himself with white supremacists who seem eager to actively tear down America as an institution. While we’ve had incompetent presidents before, we’ve never seen anything like Trump. At some points, reading Hope in the Dark feels almost like a reminder of a more innocent time.
Which is its own special kind of fucked-up.
When we talk about history, our ape brains struggle as hard as they can to discover an analogy. Our thirst for pattern recognition transforms us into terrible historians. When someone takes the oath of office on inauguration day, we don’t feel comfortable until we can find an old president to hold up to the new president and call a match. We want the future to resemble the past. And that’s not the case with Trump. He is, as the popular liberal refrain on Twitter goes, not normal. The analogy is always going to be faulty, when Trump is on one end of it.
So some of Hope in the Dark feels hopelessly outdated and mismatched. But some of these passages could just as easily have been written yesterday:
This is an extraordinary time full of vital, transformative movements that could not be foreseen. It’s also a nightmarish time. Full engagement requires the ability to perceive both.
Amnesia leads to despair in many ways. The status quo would like you to believe it is immutable, inevitable, and invulnerable, and lack of memory of a dynamically changing world reinforces this view. In other words, when you don’t know how much things have changed, you don’t see that they are changing or that they can change.”
The assumption that whatever we now believe is just common sense, or what we always knew, is a way to save face. It’s also a way to forget the power of a story and of a storyteller, the power in the margins, and the potential for change.
Activism isn’t reliable. It isn’t fast. It isn’t direct, either, most of the time, even though the term direct action is used for that confrontation in the streets, those encounters involving lawbreaking and civil disobedience. It may be because activists move like armies through the streets that people imagine effects as direct as armies, but an army assaults the physical world and takes physical possession of it; activists reclaim the streets and occasionally seize a Bastille or topple a Berlin Wall, but the terrain of their action is usually immaterial, the realm of the symbolic, political discourse, collective imagination.
Last night, almost all of the Seattleites who showed up at the February edition of the Reading Through It book club at Third Place Books Seward Park said that Hope in the Dark inspired them to feel hope. Most said it was a helpful book to read, especially in the days right after Trump ascended to the White House, when protesters took to the streets. Even though Trump doesn’t at all resemble George W. Bush, they found Solnit’s greater points to be incredibly relevant.
The discussion ranged across a wide array of topics involving resistance and reform: the tendency of liberal protesters to attack each other for not being morally pure enough, or for not showing up early enough, or for being too complacent; the fear that two years of relentless protests will wear down the willingness of progressives to fight; the concern that the powers Republicans are amassing will be insurmountable. But there were recent examples of hope, too: the thousands of Americans who spontaneously joined the Muslim ban protests at airports; the millions of Americans who, many for the first time, took to the streets as part of the Women’s March.
People read their favorite passages from Hope in the Dark. Many spent the entire evening with their thumbs jammed inside the book, clinging to those passages like floatation devices. A few people indicated that the book had, in fact, kept them afloat in the days since the inauguration.
But not everyone was convinced. A woman who works with teenage refugees broke down in tears while discussing the fear she dealt with every day, the frustration of working with kids who (rightfully) believe that at any moment federal agents could come to round them up and send them back to hostile lands. She described being angry at the protestors and at Solnit for not providing concrete support for her students.
After the book club, as folks wandered around and bought the next month’s selection and talked about what they’d heard, I saw that a number of people were standing around that woman. She talked and they listened. They looked concerned. They saw that she was hurting, they heard her describe the horrible need of the children she worked with, and they wanted to help.
It brought to mind two passages that most struck me in Hope in the Dark. Here is the first:
Resistance is first of all a matter of principle and a way to live, to make yourself one small republic of unconquered spirit.
This is true, except it ignores the fact that a resistance is not just one person. Resistance is only a solitary act at first. Resistance reaches out and clasps hands and raises its voices in a chorus. Resistance is never alone.
The second passage is this one:
One day in California, I hear a Zen Buddhist abbot from Ireland quote the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges, ‘There is no day without its moments of paradise.’ And then the day continues.
I saw a moment of paradise in that room, with those people, who saw someone in pain and, when given a choice to go off into the cold night or to stay and see what they can do, moved closer to her. When we move closer together, we move closer to hope.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the LA Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant