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What to Read Next (No. 287): A Bit of Hope in a Dark World
Happy Friday, readers!
As sarcasm and cynisism continue to pervade the art and media we consume, I find myself seeking out earnestness and optimism more and more. It’s not always easy to find in modern literature, but this week I’m happy to highlight a couple recent favorites.
The first is a non-fiction essay collection by a famed author and activist; the second is a recent novel from an acclaimed memoirist.
Let’s jump in!
Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit
Published: 2004 | Pages: 184 | Genre: Non-Fiction Essays
“Joy is itself an insurrectionary force against the dreariness and dullness and isolation of everyday life.”
Before encountering this slim volume, I hadn’t read any of historian and activist Rebecca Solnit’s work. Over the course of more than 20 books, she’s written about feminism, climate change, literature, society, philosophy, and more.
In Hope in the Dark, Solnit makes the compelling case that the world needs and deserves a little more hope.
As a naturally optimistic guy, I loved it.
In a series of essays, Solnit lays out why optimism is more and more needed as things get bleaker, as well as how to cultivate that elusive quality. As a long-time activist, she has more reason than most to dwell in cynicism. And yet she remains generally hopeful about the state of our world and, more importantly, our ability to change it for the better.
Solnit’s earnest writing was a breath of fresh air in a culture saturated by sarcasm, memes, and pessimistic outlooks. That’s not to say she doesn’t acknowledge the darkness of our world; it’s more that there are shafts of light to be found and explored within the shadows.
I have no problem recommending this book to everyone. Hope in the Dark is an eager and confident call to action to bring more hope and light into our dark and cynical age.
Let me close by sharing a few of my favorite quotes — it’s telling that I took more pages of notes from these 184 pages than any other book this year.
“To hope is to gamble. It's to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty is better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk.”
“Despair demands less of us, it's more predictable, and in a sad way safer. Authentic hope requires clarity—seeing the troubles in this world—and imagination, seeing what might lie beyond these situations that are perhaps not inevitable and immutable.”
“And maybe this is what heroism looks like nowadays: occasionally high-profile heroism in public but mostly just painstaking mastery of arcane policy, stubborn perseverance year after year for a cause, empathy with those who remain unseen, and outrage channeled into dedication.”
“I believe in hope as an act of defiance, or rather as the foundation for an ongoing series of acts of defiance, those acts necessary to bring about some of what we hope for while we live by principle in the meantime. There is no alternative, except surrender. And surrender not only abandons the future, it abandons the soul.”
Signal Fires by Dani Shapiro
Published: 2022 | Pages: 230 | Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Every neighborhood has its secrets. Whether in a murder mystery or general contemporary story (such as this one), it’s not an uncommon premise to start with. What makes Dani Shapiro’s Signal Fires unique is how complex the characters are and how hopeful the tone remains, even through some of life’s toughest tests.
Though the setting jumps around a little bit, we’re mostly narrowed in on a single street on the northern edges of the New York City metropolitan area. Spanning fifty years — not chronologically, however — the Wilfs’ and Shenkmans’ lives intersect in ways that reverberate across the entire narrative.
The primary throughline involves a tragedy and a long-held secret, but the novel ultimately explores how life changes, how we change, how we’re all connected, and how the most important things tend to surface again and again.
I loved this book from the start. Not a single character is one-dimensional — everyone is complicated but also grows in very real and relatable ways. I quite appreciated Shapiro’s prose, too, which is both graceful and approachable. Here’s one of my favorite paragraphs, from early in the book, which does a perfect job setting the scene and tone:
“Theirs was a neighborhood like any other, with the secrets and heartaches and lies, the triumphs and moments of grace that weave their way through all communities. He had often felt stifled by it — and God knows, it had driven Mimi crazy — but still, he had taken some comfort from the fact that this was his neighborhood. His people. In making the decision to settle in a particular house on a particular street, they had all thrown their lot in with one another. Their kids had run in and out of one another's houses. Had smoked their first cigarettes together, been best friends, then sworn enemies, then friends again. The parents were like witnesses, bystanders, learning to get along (for the kids' sake, Mimi used to say) and sometimes even liking one another enough to go on joint vacations.”
Shapiro packs quite a punch in these 230 pages and I’m happy to recommend Signal Fires to just about anyone.
That’s all from me this week. Thanks so much for the time and inbox space! I really appreciate it.