Recollections of My Nonexistence

by Rebecca Solnit
First sentence: “One day long ago, I looked at myself as I faced a full-length mirror and saw my image darken and soften and then seem to retreat, as though I was vanishing from the world rather than that my mind was shutting it out.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some mild swearing and talk of rape, but nothing graphic. It’s in the biography section of the bookstore.

I had no idea what to expect from this book. I’ve never read any Solnit before, though she’s been writing for decades. I only picked this up because we have this Pick of the List program at the bookstore, and this was one of our picks (booksellers more sophisticated than me picked it!). What I got was a beautifully written, lyrical, loosely chronological memoir of a woman’s professional life. It’s not a strict memoir, per se: Solnit only briefly touches on her childhood, and it tends to jump around in time. “Recollections” is really the best word for it, as it feels as though she’s sitting with you just kind of musing about the paths her life has taken. It is a feminist work: the “Nonexistence” part is about how men have often tried to diminish her thoughts, her work, herself and her perseverance in the face of that.

It is so beautifully written though. A couple passages that struck me: “I believe in the irreducible and in invocation and evocation, and I am fond of sentences less like superhighways than winding paths, with the occasional scenic detour or pause to take in the view, since a footpath can traverse steep and twisting terrain that a paved road cannot.” I feel like this could be the book’s thesis statement. And yet, the paths she takes us down are both lyrical and interesting and I found myself wanting to take the time to wander with her.

A second passage: “I was arguing that the wars of the future and the past were overlapping in the present, and that they were largely unrecognized because of how we thought about things like war, and the West, and nature, and culture, and Native people.” Even with her musings, she is political and radical, and reminded me so very strongly of some of the Western writers I’ve read, like Terry Tempest Williams. I’m not hugely drawn to the West or the Southwest in writing (or in nature, preferring my lush green trees and water — and yes, humidity — of the East and South), but I admire writers like Solnit for their passion for wide open spaces and their understanding of how Native peoples fit into the larger picture.

I’m actually curious about some of Solnit’s other books now. And perhaps I will actually read them. I’m glad I read this one.

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