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The Faraway Nearby

Rebecca Solnit's delightful book asks why we tell stories – from German fairy tales to "Frankenstein" to the stories of our own lives.

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The Faraway Nearby,
by Rebecca Solnit,
Viking Adult,
272 pp.

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“We are ourselves stories, telling and being told.” This is the central claim of Rebecca Solnit’s mesmerizing new book, The Faraway Nearby.

In Solnit’s view, we build our world and ourselves out of stories: we are always listening to them or telling them, adapting them or creating them, sharing them or hoarding them. “Where does a story begin?” Solnit asks. “The fiction is that they do, and end, rather than that the stuff of a story is just a cup of water scooped from the sea and poured back into it.” For Solnit, the world is stories all the way down.

"The Faraway Nearby" is, at its core, an examination of the storytelling impulse, though “examination” is far too stuffy a word to describe this delightful book. Solnit wears many different professional hats – she’s an award-winning historian as well as an activist, critic, and public intellectual – and "The Faraway Nearby" is itself a strange mixture of genres.

At times, the book reads like a work of literary criticism, as when Solnit offers interpretations of Mary Shelley’s "Frankenstein" and Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen.” At other times, it reads like cultural anthropology, following folk tales as they are passed on from generation to generation, culture to culture, shifting and sliding in the process: “Stories migrate; meanings migrate; everything metamorphoses.”

At still other times, it reads like a memoir. Running like a thread through the book’s labyrinthine structure is Solnit’s account of her mother’s struggles with Alzheimer’s, a disease that is so terrifying precisely because it breaks down a person’s sense of self, the story that person tells about how he or she got from the past to the present. Solnit imagines her ailing mother as a “book coming apart, pages drifting away, phrases blurring, letters falling off” – she is, in short, a story that is being untold.

"The Faraway Nearby" isn’t so much a single, coherent argument about the nature of stories, as it is a series of meditations upon the subject. Solnit understands “story” in the most encompassing sense. Illness, she argues, is a kind of story – here is how I moved from health to sickness. So are legal cases, with the defendant and the prosecutor each trying to convince the jury of a particular narrative; so is history; so is the life of a nation; so is the life of an individual; the list goes on.

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