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A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster

3.94  ·  Rating details ·  1,954 ratings  ·  386 reviews
A startling investigation of what people do in disasters and why it matters

Why is it that in the aftermath of a disaster--whether manmade or natural--people suddenly become altruistic, resourceful, and brave? What makes the newfound communities and purpose many find in the ruins and crises after disaster so joyous? And what does this joy reveal about ordinarily unmet soci
Hardcover, 353 pages
Published August 20th 2009 by Viking Adult (first published 2009)
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May 07, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: recs, 2019
An expansive work of cultural history, A Paradise Built in Hell triumphs the empathy of civil society in the wake of disaster. Across five extensively researched sections, Solnit surveys local and state reactions to the world’s major disasters since the dawn of the twentieth century, from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to the 1985 Mexico City earthquake. The book’s thesis is lucid: across cultures most residents of places resourcefully react to disaster, aspiring to help out their neighbors, ...more
Riku Sayuj
Nov 18, 2013 rated it liked it
Recommended to Riku by: Worldwatch

What is the moral equivalent of war?

Solnit’s book is in many ways an extended argument (with examples) on William James’ essay on his famous question: “What is the moral equivalent of war?” - Based on the premise that war is an ennobling bringing-together of humans and that the experience is uplifting and necessary and an equivalent would be a wonderful thing to find.

Everyone from Hobbes to Hollywood filmmakers has assumed and showcased that when disaster strikes, society crumbles. They show thi
Nov 27, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: everyone
Before reading this book I was not a fan of Rebecca Solnit. Upon the insistent recommendation of several friends who rarely steer me wrong, a few years ago I bought a copy of her earlier book about Eadweard Muybridge ("River of Shadows") and found it completely unreadable. I could sense that Solnit was smart, but it was as if she were speaking in tongues - wading through her prose was sheer torment. So I ditched it.

About a month ago I heard her speak about this latest book on a local radio progr
Apr 28, 2012 rated it did not like it
Recommends it for: Nope.
Recommended to Richard by: SFPL
Many folks might enjoy this book, but I'm not one of 'em.

There are two principle reasons for this, one of which is forgivable, the other is not.

The first is that this is a very personal book. No, it isn't TMI about the author, but her opinions and biases are evident throughout the story. When I see a title like this, I'm expecting something like what Simon Winchester has done numerous times (for example, this or this or especially this, or this one that turns out wasn't by him). Even this topic
Aug 15, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Stories of disasters have largely come to us from journalists (who need to sell stories) and historians (telling the stories of Great Men). Rebecca Solnit argued that disaster stories ignore the contributions of the common man and the ways that people come together during a disaster to support each other to, instead, focus on the Great Men who saved the day from the mischief and incompetence of the common man (women rarely entering this story except to be saved).

Solnit asserted that there are,
*The Good:
--5/5 for accessibility and the topic (reviving social imagination, especially for Western default-liberal spectators)
--To justify itself, authoritarianism relies on myths regarding “human nature”; furthermore, Capitalism has so degraded our expectations of each other that we are left with Thatcher’s proclamation: “There is no alternative!” …how can there be change if we cannot even imagine it?
--Disasters are momentary disruptions to the status quo, which provide insight to how people
Kate Savage
Jan 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Some of my favorite Solnit yet.

David Graeber says there are two general axioms of (small-a) anarchism: 1) almost always, left to their own devices, humans are basically good; 2) almost always, power corrupts human goodness and leads to cruelty.

This book felt like the historical research capable of supporting this set of beliefs. In the aftermath of destruction, despite what the movies show us, people tend to engage in heroic acts to help people they've never met, and rapidly organize to create
Jan 26, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2010
not solnit's best book, but still pretty remarkable. it's tough not to think of naomi klein's the shock doctrine while reading it. in a sense, it's a correction to some of klein's assumptions about community response in the face of catastrophes. both writers are extremely skeptical about neoliberal "relief" efforts - as well as state power in general. but solnit's perspective is more optimistic about grassroots organization - as well as more directly simpathetic to anarchism than her earlier wor ...more
Eric B. Kennedy
Oct 07, 2016 rated it did not like it
Shelves: research, disasters
Surprisingly disappointing. "A Paradise Built in Hell" is a political ramble poorly disguised as research into disasters and people's responses.

From the outset, Solnit's convictions are pretty clear: emergency services and government are bad, organic community of the pseudo-anarchistic persuasion are great, and any exceptions to those rules are barely worth mentioning. This leads to a tremendously haphazard investigation into various disasters, wherein Solnit mistakes anecdote for research.

Sarah Jaffe
Jan 24, 2010 rated it it was amazing
I was ready to quibble with her premise, really, I was. I still sort of want to at parts of this book. But it's so beautiful, and it makes me believe that things are possible, that making the world better is possible.

Read it, and read it in conjunction with Barbara Ehrenreich's "Dancing in the Streets."
Mar 22, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I have a lot of disagreements with Solnit's politics generally, and my copy of this book is filled with frustrated marginalia in response to some of her anarchist contentions (some of which I think are actually dangerous in their hostility to the kind of strong, effective bureaucracy we need to respond to disasters).

But overall, her basic point in this book about human beings' best selves coming out in response to disasters, rather than the Hobbesian "war of all against all" vision of everyone
Lorianne DiSabato
Jun 15, 2013 rated it it was amazing
A fascinating exploration of how people actually behave in the aftermath of disasters and why some disasters lead to an upsurge of community while others lead to social chaos. Solnit shows through sociological research and numerous anecdotes how the belief that the masses naturally panic during disasters is a myth created in large part by social forces trying to stay in power and fueled by media hype. If given the chance, Solnit suggests, strangers will go to extraordinary lengths to help one an ...more
Travis Todd
Mar 29, 2012 rated it liked it
So, yeah, by the time I dragged myself across the finish line I was so oversaturated with Solnit's passion for community that I wanted to hole up in some remote mountain cabin with guns and ammunition and food and books as far away from human contact as possible. I didn't want to hug or look with warmth upon another human being ever again. I'm glad she presents examples of people acting with compassion and resilience under disastrous conditions, and is such an incorrigible optimist, but I couldn ...more
Dec 19, 2019 rated it liked it
Uff, it breaks my heart to give this 3 stars. I love Solnit's writing, and was really looking forward to this book because of the fascinating premise. But with high expectations comes the potential for disappointment. Honestly if I hadn't read her work before I would have found the content really interesting, but since I know how well she can write, I was disappointed by how repetitive and yet not cohesive the book felt. Every section summed up is essentially: "everyone thinks people are selfish ...more
Jul 11, 2020 marked it as to-read
$1.99 Kindle and Kobo sale, July 11, 2020.
Jul 02, 2009 rated it it was amazing
This book is pretty incredible, and I would recommend it to anyone. The argument builds from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake (and subsequent fire) to Hurricane Katrina, through many stops in between, showing how civilized society is a very thin veneer beneath which lies... community and familial love. Looting and panic and random hysterical violence is largely a hyperbole of the very frightened elite. So the touchpoint, throughout, is that the real disaster is a society which keeps people apar ...more
Sep 05, 2019 rated it liked it
The author has a really interesting, counter intuitive thesis with some really fascinating individual stories and a bunch of intriguing asides. Unfortunately, I found it to be really brought down by the repetitive nature of the book and poor organization. It's a shame, because I feel like better editing could have turned this into a compelling read.
an essential book to read before you make up your mind about human nature. we are not nasty, mean, and brutish. we are fundamentally generous and we put together working social groups no matter where you plant a passel of us.
Apr 04, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: war, politics
Another six star book.

This book is about 345 pages long but there is an approximately 10 page section on The Halifax explosion of 1917 which I challenge anyone to read without having their mouth wide open agape in complete horror. The Halifax explosion of 1917 in the East Coast of Canada was the largest man made explosion before nuclear weapons exploding. It happened when two ships collided just off the coast of the port town of Halifax. One of the ships unfortunately was heavily Laden with bomb
Sep 07, 2020 rated it liked it
I want to hate this book, but I don’t want to be a curmudgeon, so I’ve taken a step back, done some mindful breathing, and cracked open Dr. Mark Epstein’s Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself, and I think it’s working a bit. Solnit appears to be a desperately optimistic person trying to sell the “better angels of our nature” theory, but for me she fails utterly in this undertaking. I see her as one of those Mardi Gras and Burning Man neo-bohemians who get their highs off collective ...more
Sep 13, 2020 rated it really liked it
A Paradise Built in Hell has a revolutionary message: everything you know about human behaviour during natural disasters is wrong. The popular image from movies involves mindless crowds of panicked humans. That, within minutes of the veneer of civilization being peeled back, people devolve to theft, rape, and murder. That the disaster itself is so psychologically traumatic that millions of people will have the equivalent of PTSD and need years of counseling.

Solnit shows with case studies -- the
DNF at 20%. I find the premise convincing, compelling, and humbling, particularly in this time of climate change/politics/apocalypse, but: Solnit spills a lot of her argument from the onset, and I find that article-length version adequate; the benefit of a long-form study is evidence, but a person-by-person account is tedious and lacks structure; the idea of ~300 more poorly structured pages to convince me of something I already find credible is exhausting. So I'll pass, but I appreciate Solnit' ...more
Apr 10, 2019 rated it did not like it
Shelves: fucking-awful
Writing style: garbage
Editing: garbage
Premise: Could have been interesting, but became so contrived and biased it dissolved into a steamy pile of garbage
Narrator in Audiable: super garbage

Overall rating: landfill
David Gross
In times of disaster institutions are overwhelmed, authorities vanish or are unable to keep up, society itself is spun ajumble, and people must rely on their wits and each other. What happens next?

Perhaps you’ve heard that with the thin fabric of civilization ripped suddenly away from us, we become bestial and savage in our civic nakedness: “nature, red in tooth and claw” reemerges, in some Lord of the Flies or Mad Max way, and, until we can bring ourselves back under the protection of our a
Janice Bridger
Sep 25, 2020 rated it really liked it
A disaster doesn’t have to be one for the survivors but for the poor it can often be a catastrophe- this depends on many factors though as every disaster is different. Rebecca Solnit set out to write about the impact of Hurricane Katrina on the local population. She wrote a series of essays about how the media, police and those in charge had allowed it to become a disaster when it needn’t have been. She looked for positive community responses to support her basic idea that things could be gained ...more
Patrick DiJusto
Jun 17, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2020
The hallmark of an amazing book is that it comes out long before it is needed. A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit is such a book.

Solnit's thesis is simple: everything you think you know about public behavior in a disaster -- specifically, everything you FEAR about the way people will behave in a disaster -- is provably, demonstrably wrong. Over and over, from the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 to the San Francisco earthquake of 1989 to September 11, 2001 in New York to Hurricane Katri
Aug 08, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
A celebration of post-disaster community that is hopeful and thoughtful and intoxicating, even if it has its issues. The book is centered on five disasters, but really the author uses dozens of examples to show that the natural response to disaster is resourcefulness, altruism, cooperation and resiliency (unless interrupted by an incompetent and fear-mongering authority). Love the idea of these brief moments in time in which the status quo breaks down and people form connections and find communi ...more
Jul 27, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Reading this couldn't be more timely. While some of us are not in the middle of an immediate natural disaster, we all are subjected to the devastating mismanagement of the pandemic. While natural disasters clearly bring people together for mutual survival, understanding the ways in which local and federal officials fail, steal, misportray and kill their own people is stunning.

The corruption of city, state and federal officials during Hurricane Katrina not only left people to die, but actually d
Sølvi Goard
Sep 02, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Especially relevant and pressing given our current situation. I thought this was powerful and way more nuanced about the state than other reviews imply. Solnit's central point in this book is that we are simply more effective at working through disaster when everyone has a means to engage in that work. Disaster relief is less traumatic, by scales of magnitude, when people have a purpose. People desire that purpose, and respond creatively and mutually far more than they respond with cruelty. Stat ...more
Apr 04, 2020 rated it really liked it
Really gives me hope for the c19 situation, reinforcing that the most natural and predictable reaction is for communities to self organize and take care of their members; that other people will rally to help; and that innovation happens at the grassroots.

Of course my hope is tempered by this being unlike any of the their crises, the disasters discussed in the book. The c19 situation, a biological disasters likely measures in months or years, uniquely requires sophisticated professionals.

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Writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit is the author of more than twenty books on feminism, western and indigenous history, popular power, social change and insurrection, wandering  and walking, hope and disaster, including  Call Them By Their True Names (Winner of the 2018 Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction),  Cinderella Liberator,  Men Explain Things to Me, The Mother of All Questions,  and  Ho ...more

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198 likes · 318 comments
“This is a paradise of rising to the occasion that points out by contrast how the rest of the time most of us fall down from the heights of possibility, down into diminished selves and dismal societies. Many now do not even hope for a better society, but they recognize it when they encounter it, and that discovery shines out even through the namelessness of their experience. Others recognize it, grasp it, and make something of it, and long-term social and political transformations, both good and bad, arise from the wreckage. The door to this ear's potential paradises is in hell.” 10 likes
“The possibility of paradise hovers on the cusp of coming into being, so much so that it takes powerful forces to keep such a paradise at bay. If paradise now arises in hell, it's because in the suspension of the usual order and the failure of most systems, we are free to live and act another way.” 8 likes
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