The world – especially as we know it through the cloudy lens of social media in the midst of a poisonous electoral season – is a place of polarizing and alienating information, much of it cooked up to serve hateful ends and to fuel outrage by selective or even false claims. Has there ever been a time when Yeats’s terrible “rough beast” seemed more real, more ready to be born again? The dichotomous world that Yeats described nearly a century ago, where “the best lack all conviction/while the worst are full of passionate intensity” seems a perfect description of our own world – and of the world that Andrew Solomon confronts in his new book, Far and Away: Reporting from the Brink of Change, a collection of his essays ranging over the past 25 years.
Solomon is a journalist and essayist whose most recent best-seller, Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, won the National Book Award in 2012; his previous best-seller, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize. Rhinebeck’s Oblong Books and Music will present an evening with Solomon at the Morton Memorial Library in Rhinecliff on Friday, May 14.
In an interview last week, Solomon talked about how he recognized that his writings had a common theme that was particularly timely in the face of the country’s current political plunge into xenophobia and class and race hatred. Like Yeats, he described a dichotomy that was particularly acute to him as a reporter: some journalists evaluated situations from a top-down perspective, interviewing heads of state and their ilk, as a way of understanding the world. The other perspective he called the “mythic common-man” approach, in which a journalist buttonholes anonymous taxi drivers and shopkeepers whose insights purportedly reflect the wisdom of ordinary people.
In rejecting this latter-day version of the “great man” theory of history, in which charismatic figures like Napoleon are thought to be history’s primary drivers, Solomon instead takes what he called a “Tolstoian” approach, in which history is driven by the actions not of acknowledged leaders, but of an unsung soldier whose deeds loom large in unsuspected ways. “It’s infinitely complex,” he said.
Looking at history from the top down, journalists are not providing their readers with the full story. Neither perspective, he said, is accurate nor very useful. What Solomon said he has been drawn to over the years is a middle ground where he tried to make contact with thoughtful, engaged people.
Because he was an art critic in the early ’90s, it happened that the people he discovered in his earliest essays were artists. In Moscow, he said, he’d expected to write an exposé of Russian artists who he thought were doing mediocre work and selling it for exorbitant prices to collectors in the West. But on closer inspection and after immersing himself in their world – which included a time at the barricades in Moscow during the failed coup that ultimately triggered the end of the Soviet Union – Solomon said that those artists he’d planned to expose had instead exposed him to a way of thinking and seeing the world that was nothing short of transformational.
Far and Away carries that same theme, as Solomon travels to places as diverse and distant as Afghanistan and Myanmar – places where time and again he found the thread of a common humanity that rarely makes itself known to fly-by-night journalists or their stay-safely-at-home cousins, members of the punditocracy. Travel itself, and his exposure to the common humanity that he identifies and explores in his book, has led Solomon to conclude that “how we negotiate otherness” is critical to the country’s and the world’s survival. “It’s a plea for internationalism as the only way forward,” he said.
Oblong Books and Music will present an evening’s discussion with Andrew Solomon on Friday, May 14 at 6 p.m. at the Morton Memorial Library in Rhinecliff. Tickets are required and cost $10. The cost may be applied to the purchase of Far and Away (limited to one discount per book purchased). For further information or to buy tickets, call (845) 876-0500 or visit www.oblongbooks.com.
Andrew Solomon book talk, Friday, May 14, 6 p.m., $10, Morton Memorial Library, 82 Kelly Street, Rhinecliff; (845) 876-0500, www.oblongbooks.com.