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A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster Hardcover – August 20, 2009


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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Rebecca Solnit is the author of numerous books, including Hope in the Dark, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, Wanderlust: A History of Walking, and As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art, which was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism. In 2003, she received the prestigious Lannan Literary Award.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult; First Edition, First Printing edition (August 20, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670021075
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670021079
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.3 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (34 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #364,739 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit is the author of sixteen books about environment, landscape, community, art, politics, hope, and memory, including two atlases, of San Francisco in 2010 and New Orleans in 2013; this year's Men Explain Things to Me; last year's The Faraway Nearby; A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster; A Field Guide to Getting Lost; Wanderlust: A History of Walking; and River of Shadows, Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (for which she received a Guggenheim, the National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism, and the Lannan Literary Award). A product of the California public education system from kindergarten to graduate school, she is a contributing editor to Harper's and frequent contributor to the political site Tomdispatch.com.

She encourages you to shop at Indiebound, your local independent bookstore, Powells.com, Barnes & Noble online and kind of has some large problems with how Amazon operates these days. Though she's glad if you're buying her books however.....

Customer Reviews

I thought I was nuts until I read this book.
A.
Instead, there are two chapters of the book that a reader such as me might find interesting.
Douglas B. Moran
Highly recommended to anyone interested in current affairs, political philosophy, etc.
S. McGee

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

146 of 150 people found the following review helpful By S. McGee TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on September 8, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Sometimes, a book comes along that forces me to stop reading every few pages. Not because it's badly written, clumsily argued or otherwise defective. But simply because it's so provocative, so compelling and so articulate that I had to pause in order to digest a whole raft of new ideas, toss out some old preconceptions and ponder some important questions.

Solnit's core argument -- that we can find hints of a humanist-style utopia in the world's worst disasters -- is not only provocative but fascinating, as she amasses a host of evidence to prove her point from the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 up to Hurricane Katrina nearly a century later, disasters that range from the Halifax explosion during World War 1 to the terrorist attacks on 9/11 in both New York and Washington. In the midst of these disasters, as she chronicles repeatedly, people -- ordinary individuals, not institutions -- rose to the occasion. Rather than panicking, they acted, whether that meant battling to save lives or simply to reach out to strangers in random acts of love and compassion. With disaster, paradoxically, can come joy, since in disaster it is possible for those of us not immediately afflicted to rediscover a sense of community and purpose that is otherwise absent from our lives. "The desires and possibilities awakened are so powerful that they shine even from wreckage, carnage and ashes," Solnit writes.

Solnit was driven to write this book by her experiences in California's Loma Prieta earthquake; I was compelled to pick it up by my own experiences in the heart of lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001. I witnessed sights that continue to give me nightmares, but experienced (and to some extent participated in) the kind of reforging of a spirit of community of the kind that she describes.
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49 of 49 people found the following review helpful By David M. Giltinan on December 1, 2010
Format: Paperback
About a month ago I heard Rebecca Solnit speak about this book on a local radio program and she was so incredibly smart and passionate and articulate, and her thesis was so appealing, that I felt compelled to give it a try. "A Paradise Built in Hell" was well worth it. It's an extraordinary book -- fascinating, thought-provoking, and ultimately persuasive in supporting Solnit's thesis. And although her style is somewhat undisciplined, and the material could have been more tightly organized, I didn't find these aspects annoying, probably because they seemed to be primarily a manifestation of her infectious enthusiasm for the material.

Viewers of "The History Channel" will be familiar with its habit of broadcasting a regularly scheduled "Apocalypse Week", during which they attempt to goose the ratings by scaring the bejasus out of their viewing audience. A typical day's programming during Apocalypse Week takes one possible way in which the world might end (megavolcano explosion, meteor impact, nuclear holocaust, deadly plague, climatic catastrophe, the Rapture, Armageddon as prophesied in the Book of Revelations, insert your own favorite apocalyptic nightmare here ...) and develops it in depth. The cynicism and idiocy with which these scenarios are fleshed out cannot be overstated (e.g. alleged "experts" pontificate on whether emergency services are likely to be overextended, or whether planes will fall out of the skies, in the immediate aftermath of the Rapture; or the apocalypse is "linked" to the prophecies of Nostradamus, or the Mayan calendar; boundless idiocy runs rampant).
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52 of 54 people found the following review helpful By J. Bradley Hicks on October 11, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Before I picked up this book, I didn't even know that there was an academic field called "disaster sociology." It turns out it goes back to William James himself, an eyewitness to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake who had the open-mindedness to look at how the people of San Francisco were affected by that disaster without projecting his own prejudices on it. He was astonished; people in disasters don't act anything like how we would expect them to. James' findings have been replicated by studying people in hundreds of historical and modern disasters, and from those studies disaster sociologists have come to some concrete, reliable scientific findings. Solnit believes very, very much that the rest of us need to know what the disaster sociologists know, because our mistaken expectations of what will happen during and immediately after disasters keep making things worse, not better, for the survivors. Before James Lee Witt took over FEMA, and ever since he left, it's been a standing joke that all disasters come in two phases: the disaster itself, and then the even worse disaster when FEMA arrives. This is not a coincidence; Witt knows things about disaster that almost nobody else in America knows, including other first responders, and it showed up in his priorities.

Solnit draws most of her examples from four disasters and their aftermaths, each recounted in detail: the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the 1917 explosion of an ammunition ship in Halifax harbor that destroyed the city, the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, and the World Trade Center attack on 9/11 of 2001. Other earthquakes, hurricanes, bombings, and other disasters are cited for comparison and contrast.
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