Rebecca Solnit, a San Francisco historian and activist, is also the author of several books, most recently “A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster.” She tells us about the books that have influenced her life, the people who inspire her, and how the best and worst parts of her job are the same thing.
What has left the biggest impression on you as you’ve gone through life?
My work, which has been about the gray areas of life; the nuances and complexities that escape political categories.
What’s something about you that people would find surprising?
I was a very shy, withdrawn kid, given that I now spend a lot of time talking to people in public. Public speaking is the punishment for all the time you get to spend at home alone.
What is the book that has most influenced you?
Jorge Luis Borges’s “Labyrinths.” I bought the Penguin paperback for almost nothing when I was 15 and it showed me how creative, how unpredictable, how poetic nonfictional prose essays could be. I still own the broken-spined little book with all the pages loose inside the cover, and I still go back to Borges all the time.
The books I write are the books that I would just love to find. “Hope in the Dark” [a history of activism] really brought together a lot of ideas that have changed my thinking and, in the process of consolidating them, really gave me a sense of how history unfolds, where power lies and what’s possible. I looked at a lot of big-picture subjects, and it laid a very powerful foundation for me that’s very present in everything I do now.
What is the golden rule by which you live?
I saw a great sign yesterday that said, “Everything must go,” and I thought maybe that’s a motto, not just an advertisement.
What would you want most to hear your colleagues say about you?
That I make them think, whether or not they agree with me.
What is the best part about your job? What is the worst?
That my work and my life are completely inseparable is both the best and worst parts.
Where or to whom do you turn to in dark times?
Practices like yoga and running. Also, the lovely people I talk to regularly, my closest friends. And Ocean Beach, our little edge on the infinite; there’s something about that vastness that’s very reassuring and reinforcing.
Where do you find inspiration?
People doing extraordinary things: Martin Luther King; Ghandi; Grace Lee Boggs, a 94-year-old Chinese-American activist and philosopher. Also, the grace and generosity with which a lot of anonymous people I cross paths with conduct themselves despite everything.