Rebecca Solnit

The Faraway Nearby

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The Faraway Nearby Summary

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Blending creative nonfiction, prose poetry, travel writing, and literary analyses, American author Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby (2013) is a lyrical dreamscape of ideas centering on the human need to create; specifically, how storytelling and empathy inform, shape, and enrich the human experience. The catalyst for all of these musings is Solnit’s mother’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, which inspires the author to consider the creative imagination, its beauties, and its limits. Though it does not fit easily into any one genre, The Faraway Nearby was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in the category of Autobiography/Memoir.

Solnit draws the title of the book from celebrated artist Georgia O’Keeffe. After O’Keeffe moved from New York City to rural New Mexico, she signed her letters, “from the faraway nearby.” It is also the title of an O’Keeffe painting. On the surface, the phrase simply refers to the fact that no one is ever truly as far away as we might initially think they are. But on a deeper level, it references the creative headspace that people like O’Keeffe and Solnit, by virtue of their occupations, inhabit frequently. The wings of imagination take them where they need to go, so while they might be sitting right in front of you—poised over a canvas or over computer keys—their minds could be worlds away on some creative flight of fancy.

It is this flight, this journey, that most interests Solnit in The Faraway Nearby. Not necessarily the content of the journey, but its purpose, its structure, and its intrinsic value. “What’s your story?” Solnit asks. “It’s all in the telling. Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them.”

In the first piece, “Apricots,” Solnit compares stories to apricots. Some are presently ripe for the telling. Others won’t be ready until some future date. And some have progressed far beyond their usefulness to a point of rotting. In the wake of her mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, she considers the range of stories she could tell and, like apricots, the various conditions these stories are in. (The book’s title might also allude to her mother’s declining mental state as a result of Alzheimer’s—someone seemingly so near, yet so far.) When Solnit was younger, she says that her stories about her mother would be factual, almost cold, in their detail and logic. But now, with things changed as they are, Solnit has made “the leap beyond that might be love.” It is this love that informs each of the thirteen pieces of The Faraway Nearby. Even when lending a critical eye to the subjects she tackles, Solnit’s love drives her: her love for storytelling, for creativity, and, of course, for her mother.

Several of the book’s episodes are autobiographical. She delves into subjects such as a trip to Iceland, where she is “the first international resident at the Library of Water”; her cancer surgery; and her mother’s cognitive decline.

Nevertheless, Solnit finds the personal in a variety of other places as well. She analyzes Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the works of Virginia Woolf, and even Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. She discusses Che Guevarra’s visits to leper colonies, arctic explorations (including cannibalism among Eskimo populations and among polar bears), and a little girl famously stuck in a well. She broaches the vast and complex terrain of religion, specifically Buddhism and the life of the Buddha, which she calls “a fairy tale run backward.” No place is too distant for Solnit’s pen, and she tackles these far-flung topics as methods for people to see and learn about themselves. “Distant places give us refuge in territories where our own histories aren’t so deeply entrenched and we can imagine other stories, other selves, or just drink up quiet and respite,” Solnit writes. Through these other stories, we develop empathy, we find refuge, and we come to appreciate the vastness of the creative imagination.

In the end, Solnit returns to the matter of apricots. There is a bittersweet quality to revisiting this subject, because one of the many threads that wends its way through the book is her complicated relationship with her mother and her mother’s advancing illness. By bookending The Faraway Nearby with apricots, Solnit illustrates the often-circular nature of time and the characteristics of the memories she has of her mother. Some of those memories are sweet and rich and rewarding like the apricot jam Solnit makes. Some are as biting and bitter and bracing as the liquor she steeps from the apricot pits. And, as time goes on in its infinite loop, her mother will forget most, if not all, of these memories, like the apricot slowly turning itself over to the ravages of time and decay. “Time itself is our tragedy,” Solnit writes, “and most of us are fighting some kind of war against it.”

Nevertheless, as the pieces of this volume suggest, time is also our gift. It is one we can make sense of through stories—our own and others’. Through memories. And through the empathy that comes with reaching out and sharing the apricot with the stranger.