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Men Explain Things to Me Paperback – September 1, 2015
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About the Author
Writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit is the author of eighteen or so books on feminism, western and indigenous history, popular power, social change and insurrection, wandering and walking, hope and disaster, including the books Men Explain Things to Me and Hope in the Dark, both also with Haymarket; a trilogy of atlases of American cities; 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 columnist at Harper's and a regular contributor to the Guardian.
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Solnit is clearly a powerful mind and talented writer. Her prose is strong and forceful, and she writes with stirring— at times contagious—- conviction. The book’s most powerful essays (“Men Explain Things To Me” and “#YesAllWomen”) are intelligent, clear-sighted looks at a massive, difficult, dangerous topic. It’s saddens me to applaud Solnit for her courage in writing this, if only because that acknowledges the typical backlash against women who speak out against misogyny, but she IS courageous and that alone warrants commendation.
The book starts out with a funny, almost playful anecdote about being mansplained to by a pompous idiot at a party in Aspen, but then quickly moves into darker waters. Solnit goes on to use politics, art, history and new media as springboards for discussing the interconnectedness of cultural misogyny and how mansplaining and rape can be viewed as existing on a continuum. Towards the end of the book she summarizes this nicely: “It’s a slippery slope. That’s why we need to address the slope, rather than compartmentalizing the varieties of misogyny and dealing with them separately.” (p. 134) It’s a new way of looking at an ancient problem, articulated in a way that I don’t think I’ve heard before, and Solnit rounds out her case by anticipating counter arguments (i.e. men being falsely imprisoned for rape) and responding to them to the degree that they deserve.
So here’s the part where I complain: While her arguments are culturally important and her writing is strong, Solnit’s rhetoric seems, at times, deliberately hyperbolic and meant to divide readers. On pg. 57 she describes the case of Ariel Castro, a man accused of imprisoning, torturing and sexually abusing three women as being “a vicious version of the traditional [marriage] arrangement.” Later on in the book (p. 153) she takes a similar swipe at capitalism: “There’s more that we need to be liberated from… a system that serves environmental destruction and limitless consumption…” And beyond that there’s a general celebration of revolution, (non-violent) anarchy, as well as Solnit’s insistence that this is, indeed, “a war.” In other words, if you’re traditional / conservative / old-fashioned, then chances are you’re probably going to feel pretty alienated while reading this, if not all out attacked. I don’t consider myself conservative, but there were still times when I felt myself getting defensive. With that said, I was less annoyed with this on ideological terms than I was by what felt like a tactical mis-step. Simply put: This is a wise book. This is an important book. A lot of people should be reading it and absorbing it's message. And I could suddenly feel thousands of readers— good people who’s minds are ready to be expanded— fleeing from it’s very positive message, because they were being lumped in with rapists and murderers. I was frustrated because I felt like the book was preaching to the choir and, in-so-doing, entrenching conservatives deeper into their current belief systems.
One could argue that this book isn't intended to convert and so it's unfair to judge it by those standards; that it’s a celebration and reminder of what’s already been accomplished in the fight for gender equality, and that now it’s up to someone else to write the gentler, more palatable book that eases The Other Side into progressive thinking. And you know what— that may very well be the case. In the meantime, I encourage conservative thinkers who are interested in reading this to do so with an open mind instead of just looking for things to disagree with. Because the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of what’s discussed in this book really has nothing to do with superficial left / right politics and everything to do with how we want our nieces/daughters to be treated as they grow up in the world. And that feels like something we can all agree on.
Solnit does a great job putting words to problems and environments that are difficult to articulate, but most women feel as a shared experience. It's not just the verbiage though as she cites many strong statistics to back up all the points she discusses.
The middle of the book is almost entirely about Virginia Woolf and the theories behind her ideas and work, but I found it very difficult to follow and it was almost like I was reading a different book, however, the end get's back into a narrative style like the beginning.
I would recommend this book to anyone who would like to know a little more about the choices women are faced with as well as the origin of a lot of the ideas that shaped our perception of gender and roles within society.