Book Review: Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness

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Rebecca Solnit’s Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness is filled with insights that are both acute and meaningful.

The 30 essays that span Rebecca Solnit’s Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness range from an Arctic expedition off the Norwegian coast to the Zapatista communities in southern Mexico. In between, everything from the contradictions internet connectivity has brought us to Henry David Thoreau’s laundry to urban gardening is explored with insights that are both acute and meaningful. 

Though readers may connect with some parts more than others (perhaps based on where they’ve been or what they’ve been involved in), the stories become relevant because of the broader symbolism that is brought to light. In “The Google Bus,” Solnit critiques the affects of private transportation in San Francisco. Not only does such an enterprise undermine public transportation services, she argues, but it also contributes to carbon emissions, longer working hours (the commute from San Francisco to Silicon Valley is 3.5 hours), and higher rental and property prices. These have all changed the face of the city and Solnit likens it to the Gold Rush which brought to California great wealth along with displacement of indigenous communities, disease, child labor, and inflation. 

In “The Visibility Wars” she looks at “warscapes” and here, a myriad of topics are broached from nuclear testing in Nevada to government spying to the importance of photography, all of which are linked together in an examination of secrecy and transparency. 

Also included are two letters (one to a dead man and one to an entire country) as well as the commencement address Solnit gave to Berkeley’s graduating English majors in which she tells the audience, “The universe is made out of stories—go change them, tell them, bury them, and give birth to them.” Storytelling along with darkness, hope, and exploration are common themes from her previous works that appear throughout these essays. What unites them are the various interpretations of trouble and spaciousness that are thread throughout. Trouble, we learn, can be anything from ghosts to rebellion to language. Spaciousness is not just place— Detroit, Haiti or New Orleans—but reaches from the alternative worlds that are being built if only we would notice the labyrinths we travel through in order to find home. 

This read will lead to a different, more layered understanding of the world around and in us. Though Solnit’s ideas dig deep and her writing is often poetic, the essays still come across as accessible, forming an encyclopedia that is ready to be thoughtfully absorbed, questioned, and reflected upon.

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