Review: Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit

Hope in the DarkRebecca Solnit first wrote Hope in the Dark in 2004. Here Matt Ross reviews the American author’s arguments for keeping the faith in times of despair.

Sitting in a hipster yoga retreat in Bali, sweating and occasionally scratching the red mosquito bites clustering on my ankles, I met Nick Davis. Nick was a shirtless and pale carefree man and a newly retired journalist who had written the stories of the phone hacking scandal for The Guardian in the United Kingdom. Sipping on a large green coconut, listening to my story of burnout and disenchantment with politics, he recommended I read Hope in the Dark ­by Rebecca Solnit, a book written to help activists and campaigners find hope in times of struggle. Gratefully I followed through and in an ode to Nick I have reviewed his recommendation.

Solnit writes that Hope in the Dark was first crafted as an essay in 2003 when protesting the Iraq War was boiling up into enormous rallies around the world. After experiencing incredible success touring her essay at various conferences, Solnit expanded her essay into a book, updating it with two more editions since 2003. Each time she has refined her arguments and reflections, creating a succinct book that manages to roll from chapter to chapter.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Solnit’s book are her many and varying, at times even obscure examples of activism and global movements. Solnit has researched broadly and the examples of movements and campaigns are fascinating. This forms the basis for most of the structure of her work and it is how she constructs her arguments for hope.

One of the potential challenges of creating an argument for hope based on examples of successful and progressive social change, is that there are also many examples of times when people like Donald Trump have been elected. For every example of hope based on a win there may be a counter example of when campaigns have failed. Building arguments on hope on a premise of wins and losses could have quite easily reduced the book into a series of “Yeah but…” arguments achieving very little new reflection on hope in activism. Cleverly Solnit overcomes these concerns by using examples of campaigning and activism to explore the many constructs and relationships we all have with hope. And this is where her work really shines.

Particularly useful are Solnit’s reflections of the relationship the left has with hope. She articulates many limiting constructs that are so often present in campaigns and provides a language to name these constructs. I found myself relating to her reflections either through campaigns I have been a part of or through my own world view. This is a powerful exercise creating a greater awareness of some common challenges to hope both personally and collectively in campaigns. Her book almost becomes a self-assessment tool for activists, challenging the reader to ask themselves what the barriers are for them to embracing a more hopeful worldview.

The book however is not without its faults. Perhaps to counter the essay, Solnit uses analogy to draw the reader into different chapters and concepts. Although I could appreciate this, I also found myself frustrated with the meandering nature of these analogies. Rather than say there are examples of hope all around us, even in our local neighbourhood, Solnit uses an extended analogy of a pelican flying over her home town to link together several inspiring stories. Some readers may find this clever. I found this made her arguments less direct and clear which reduced what was at times, a very powerful point.

Finally, the book is consciously written for the activist or left community. Although Solnit uses broader examples of altruism to build her argument of hope such as our response to natural disaster or her research on the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York, most of the examples and reflections are exclusive to the left. That is not to say that people who identify with more conservative politics cannot engage in the book – they may gain a lot from reading it – but it does limit her audience to some degree.

Solnit has cleverly written a book that deeply reflects on hope and challenges the reader to take ownership of their hope. By exploring the left’s many constructs of hope through examples of successful and less successful campaigns and social movements, Solnit provides a language for activists to challenge the beliefs that limit the embrace of hope. I asked myself a few months after I read Hope in the Dark, as to whether I had more hope in the world because I read it and my answer was yes. I must email Nick and say thanks for the recommendation. I owe him a coconut!

Matt RossMatt Ross is a Gold Coast resident who splits his time between part-time social work and community organising. He is currently supporting a local #StopAdani action group as well as helping out with the Brisbane Campaigners Network and mentoring some up and coming campaigners in Queensland. Before this he worked as the lead organiser for Larissa Waters in the last federal election.

You can purchase Hope in the Dark here and explore other writing by Rebecca Solnit on her website.

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