"A Paradise Built in Hell" by Rebecca Solnit

In A Paradise Built in Hell Rebecca Solnit states that what we believe happens and what actually happens in the wake of a major disaster are two very different things. The media, movies and government will have us believe that disasters turn our society into a chaotic and dangerous place. But Solnit argues that instead there is a wave of altruism in which people come together rather than divide.

Using five major disasters - the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, 1917 Halifax explosion, 1985 Mexico City earthquake, September 11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina - to support her argument, Solnit tells the stories of every day people who rose to the occasion and did so with joy. The hope of the book is to show that the utopias that emerge following disasters can be inspirational and provide a new vision of what our every day society could be.

The book is more of an academic work than an inspirational one. There are numerous stories to support Solnit's argument. The first two parts, the San Francisco earthquake and Halifax explosion, are not as in depth as the other three, obviously because of the time. The final two parts, 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, evoke more emotion and inspiration because these are two disasters in which the reader will be familiar with in some way.

Solnit does a good job of showing the difference between what we think happens and what actually happens. Unless we are experiencing the disaster directly, we really only know what we see on the television screen. Hurricane Katrina is an excellent example of how rumours can get out of control and even the respected news outlets will help to spread these rumours.

Solnit's recounting of the violence and murders that did follow Hurricane Katrina do seem a little out of place in the book, since her focus is on the good work that is done, and showing that the media and government blew things out of proportion. She does go on to show that there were numerous good works done, but for me personally, I don't think the first part helped her argument.

Overall, this is a very interesting book. What Solnit says, that out of disasters come a sense of community, a wave of altruism and the good in people, is very true. However, how this can translate into every day society and influence us from day to day isn't fully developed and thus left me looking for a little more.

Rebecca Solnit's Penguin Group website


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