savvylit's review

Go to review page

inspiring reflective sad slow-paced


The concept behind this book is fascinating and so incredibly well-researched. Tracing first-hand accounts all the way from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Rebecca Solnit shows that altruism and solidarity are the true default state of groups of survivors. Contrary to media-enforced narratives of chaos, violence, and looting, people will more often than not do anything that they can to help one another. Not only that, but the real post-disaster danger comes from bureaucratic mishandling or, as Solnit says, elite panic. Panic and red tape have proven themselves to be the real obstacles immediately after a disaster occurs. Take September 11th, for instance. Mayor Rudy Giuliani's office of emergency management had been housed at the World Trade Center. Thus, after the towers fell, there was no one to execute a safe rescue plan. Coworkers and neighbors united with firefighters to ensure that as many people as possible got out of the rubble safely.

Again, A Paradise Built in Hell is an incredibly well-written and thoroughly researched book. However, to its detriment, it is also incredibly dry and a very slow read. Solnit could have proved her excellent thesis in many fewer words and with examples from fewer disasters. The segments on the more recent disasters were the most engaging because Solnit traveled to those communities and actually met living survivors. The first two disasters, the 1906 earthquake and the Halifax explosion are thus not nearly as interesting to read about. They read like excerpts from an old textbook. While I understand that those disasters also prove Solnit's point, I think they could have been left out in favor of a more digestible length. Ultimately, it's unfortunate because I absolutely love this book's primary message of community solidarity. I wish everyone could know that post-disaster chaos is a myth. However, how do I recommend something that felt like such a serious slog?

Expand filter menu Content Warnings

bry97's review against another edition

Go to review page

dark emotional hopeful informative inspiring medium-paced


Urgent and yet somehow heartwarming look into the way communities come together in face of disasters. 
The author does a good job in breaking down the different reactions to disasters, and the dangers that lie in top down, fear driven responses to disaster responses where those in power care more about regaining control than they do human life. However dark the subject matter, I think this book is hopeful at its core - with explorations into the power of mutual aid and the way we reach out to one another in times of crisis. 
This felt extra timely - reading this book during a global pandemic where it seems like government is failing us left and right. 
While I thought Solnits writing was a little flowery and repetitive, I think they did a great job laying out her argument and suggesting a possibility for change in the future.

Expand filter menu Content Warnings