Pillars: #4. River of Shadows by Rebecca Solnit

Borrowing from William H. Gass’s essay “50 Literary Pillars” (found in A Temple of Texts), I’m writing about books and authors that have been pillars for my aesthetic as a reader and a writer. Although these items are numbered, these are listed in no particular order. See more Pillars here.


When I was younger, I had very little knowledge what the modern world was. Like everyone, I lived in it, so in theory I should have been a specialist on this question. Like everyone, I was taught in school about industrialization and the working class, I had been taught to say bourgeoisie, we had even learned a bit about fascism and communism and the great wars that had decided that they would not be suitable forms of government. In theory I knew very much about the modern world, but the fact is that we all are so extremely close to modernity that it is difficult to make interesting observations about it, just as we have to learn to see ourselves with the acuity of a Proust in order to be good observers of our nature.

In those days I still had very little idea what separated my world from the medieval one, other than that we didn’t die of infected wounds any longer and we could get around much more easily. Rebecca Solnit’s River of Shadows was one of the first things I read that systematically attempted to explain a significant chunk of the ideology governing our world, and where these ideas had come from. It succeeded magnificently, making this explanation into a story that could easily engage a mind, but without neglecting the rigor that such aspirations required. Because of that, River of Shadows was not only a formative intellectual experience for me, it was also a key aesthetic one, pointing the way to the sort of book-length essay I would one day wish to write myself.

So what is this book about? Well, the two inventions at the heart of it are the photograph and the railroad. They are two inventions that Solnit argues have played an outsized role in forming the modern consciousness. Photography allowed us to see the world in ways it had never been seen before. For the first time, humans might know what a horse looked like in mid-gallop, or they might examine the beautiful patterns made by water droplets springing up in the aftermath of a splash. Before photography we did not have the technology to record details that would only exist for a fraction of a second—it was a whole new world opening up for us, a visual, artistic, and scientific revolution. In addition, before widespread photography we did not have the capabilities to record images of moments from our lives, nor to easily see what diverse places all over the Earth looked like: photography began a drastic re-shaping of our memories, and thus our conception of ourselves as individuals that existed over a long span of time within a vast and changing world.

As to railroads, they allowed the mass transportation of human beings and commodities farther and faster than ever had before. As railroads propagated, we began to see that our common understanding of time was not sufficient for the new reality they wrought. Time zones were invented so that there was some logical cohesion operating over where and when a train departed, and where and when it arrived. Similarly, railroads forced the dissemination and orchestration of timekeeping so that railroad schedules could be kept. Never before had such a broad section of humanity known the exact time of day, and never had we been so aware that time as measured by a clock might govern our life. Railroads also forced new conceptions of distance: whereas previously individuals might have lived their entire lives within a radius of a few miles, now it was quite common to travel much greater distances, and it was possible for there to be levels of exchange and interdependence never before imaginable.

It is not hard to see how these ideas would prove pertinent to a reader in 2003, when this book was originally published, or even today. Concepts of time, speed, and distance—mastering them, or fearing being mastered by them—are of course central preoccupations of our conversations. Just look around social media for all the think-pieces about the pace of life these days, or how much time we spend working now that we’re on-call 24 hours every day. River of Shadows attempts to locate the beginnings of these lines of thought, and for me these ideas were transformative in establishing my concept of what this world I lived in was.

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If photographs and railroads are the central inventions in River of Shadows, the central actor in this book is the inventor and photographer Edweard Muybridge: he’s probably best-known for his motion-studies of humans and animals, the most famous of which finally settled the debate over whether all four of a horse’s hooves were ever off the ground during a gallop. Muybridge, an adventurer who was acquitted of the murder of his wife’s lover for reason of justifiable homicide, made possible modern photography and film through the high-speed emulsions that he invented. Prior to Muybridge’s inventions, it would take minutes to made a single photograph in broad daylight; obviously this would not do for the sort of stop-action photography that was Muybridge’s goal, and nor would it have been possible to creation motion pictures with such technology.

What struck me as I read River of Shadows was how Muybridge’s compelling personality let Solnit create an absorbing narrative for her book, and how it also enlivened her imagination and her diction. This compelling figure and his compelling story granted her the narrative momentum to layer her book with philosophical digressions on the nature of the modern consciousness. As I read, I understood that Muybridge was this spine that allowed the book to be a book-length essay, and not a collection of essays on a shared theme. I also saw that it was his compelling story that allowed the book to appeal to a broad audience of readers, and which allowed it to achieve a success that most of her previous titles had not. Comprehending this was a revelation; as I looked around, I began to see that many of my favorite book-length essays had adopted a similar tactic, layering philosophical heft and dense observation on top of what they hoped to be a compelling through-line.

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I think what also appealed to me about River of Shadows was how much original research was in this book. This was an important thing, because I had always known that the university system was not one that I wanted any part of, even though I very much wanted to be a part of the conversation of ideas to which it laid claim. I knew that I wanted my writing to be rigorous, and well-researched, and, if possible, to make an original contribution the world of ideas. I just wanted to do all of this outside of the academy. River of Shadows was exactly this book. It showed me a way to do this sort of writing beyond the university system—it proved that such work could be done independently, and it showed that such an independent endeavor could have a very serious impact (the book was broadly received, sold well, and received a National Book Critics Circle Award).

It was also a very personal book, one in which Solnit allows her subjective passion and admiration for certain ideas and individuals to emerge. And this was a formative thing for me as well, because even then I believed in the importance that subjectivity could make to an intellectual inquiry, and I felt that many of the best and most lasting ideas have come about because certain people allowed their obsessions to gain some influence over their pen. I think it is seeing the value in this sort of passion, and in knowing how to carefully walk that line between the subjective and the objective that allows a person like Solnit to write a book like this. And I think that, ultimately, this is what allows a thinker to be original. Reading this book, I was able to explain to myself why I had been right not to choose the university as the arena in which I would attempt to think original thoughts.

Reviewing River of Shadows for The New Republic, David Thomson wrote, “even if River of Shadows is finally as beyond categorization as it is marred by its very large assertions, still it is a book of enormous intelligence and fascination.” He proceeds to take Solnit to task for claiming too much. Well, first, I find that a strange critique to be lodged by a man who once wrote a very good book about how Psycho changed film forever, unleashing a new sort of passion and horror into our consciousness. Just as Thompson chides Solnit that someone else would have inspired film if not Muybridge, we could equally tell Thompson that there were many people other than Hitchcock working toward inventing the slasher-flick-as-art. In both books, this critique is beside the point. Both of them succeed for the same reason, the grand narratives they create in spite of the nitpicking that can be applied to either. Certainly you could similarly nitpick many great essayists and thinkers who have offered us master narratives. Great ideas are not imagined and propagated by writers concerned that they will be nitpicked to death. Yes, if Muybridge had not invented high-speed emulsions, someone else would have. I do not think it is Solnit’s point that only he could have done it. I think her point is to tell the story of the visionary who did create these inventions, to understand why it was he, and the world that he operated in.

I like that in River of Shadows, as elsewhere, Rebecca Solnit shows the sort of courage and ambition that Thomson unfairly criticizes her for, the same qualities that have made Thomson himself such an original writer on film. It is what gives their writing the quality of vision. Of course, courage and ambition alone are not enough; far too many of our would-be visionaries are nearsighted without realizing it, lacking the kind of perspective and insight needed to make interesting observations about out world. They and their clickbait fodder are easy enough to dismiss. River of Shadows, however, is not dismissible (even Thomson will admit that). It ignited in me untold numbers of thoughts, and it put my thinking onto a new plane. It was certainly one of the beginnings of a true understanding of what our world is.



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