Book 60: Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

I have to admit that this was only my second dabble into the audiobook world, and I am not a fan. I’m a visual learner, not an aural learner, so I don’t enjoy listening to books on tape nearly as much as I do reading them in hard or virtual copy. This audible was gifted to me, as I had listed it, by a sweet secret Santa.

Every woman who appears struggles with the forces that would have her disappear.”

This book was published in 2014, though the essays it begins with were written years earlier. This book spans more than a decade of sexism, issues faced not only by Solnit herself, but by women and girls around the world. It seems to me that the book was sparked by an instance in which a man began explaining a book to her, a “very important book” about a man she herself had written about – the book he was discussing was Solnit’s own. This arrogance, as she mentions, is quite gendered.

I won’t lie to you, I began this book feeling very lukewarm – Solnit often pauses to say “not all men,” or the likes – that sort of affirmation to the gender that has wronged women historically and continues to do so doesn’t sit well with me. It’s a weak approach at best. I began by chalking this dissonance up to Solnit’s age and my own – and then I realized how patronizing that would be. Perhaps Solnit chose to warm the reluctant reader up to the more radical feminist stances that she takes later on, though I still wish that the introduction itself was more unapologetic.

I found myself stumbling over another element of Solnit’s essays – culture. She uses many examples, plenty of solid evidence against sexism, though in multiple instances it seemed as though she glazed over Western cultures in favor of “those Middle Eastern countries,” or African, and even South American cultures. She lists, in one essay, examples from those three continents, going on to say that she could list examples from Canada, England, etc. but she won’t for the sake of length. Solnit even goes so far at one point as to mention the veil or the Burqa in terms of it being a means to hide the woman, objectify her in the sense that she no longer appears human; nevermind the nuance to the arguments surrounding burqa, hijab, etc.

The term “white feminism” comes to mind, and I wish, oh do I wish, that it didn’t.

As the book progressed, I found myself less uncomfortable with Solnit’s writing. She calls forward instances of sexism throughout history from the genealogical omissions of women from the family tree to campus rapes and specific instances, such as the Steubenville rape case of 2012. This ability to form such thorough inference is what sparked my frustration with the earlier chapters. Solnit constructs a road in this book, though it is a road laced with potholes, much like the center lane of an interstate. It is a road we can all travel, a path setting the bar, just not too high.

One of my favorite elements of Solnit’s narrative was the concept of darkness; Solnit brings forth quite a few references to Virginia Wolf, a famous feminist novelist who I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read yet. Her references made me fall in love with the second half of the book, as well as giving me a nudge to read the books from Wolf I’ve had on my shelf for years. I was particularly fascinated with the concept of “killing the angel in the house,” the ideal, selfless woman who only meets the needs of others without worrying or caring for herself.

I’ve noticed a trend in my reading as of late; I keep happening upon books that give advice to writers, without having any inkling the advice will be there. Solnit directly addresses writers, nonfiction writers specifically, and literary critics. A quote that stood out was “writers must go into the darkness with their eyes wide open,” meaning that the unknown (darkness) is something that writers must experience wholly in order to write well on it. It seems funny to have listened to Solnit’s words on literary criticism just before criticizing her book, but I do feel that I’ve fulfilled her requests in starting a conversation with her art (the book).

Overall, I would recommend this book to a friend who hadn’t read much on gender and feminism, though I did have some qualms with it. The second half of this book is so stunning that it almost makes up for its shortcomings. What started out with an almost timid assertion about “mansplaining” (though Solnit is reluctant with the word), ended up being a much more complex and holistic look at progressive movements for gender.  

I give this book a 7/10.

Men Explain Things To Me

Happy reading!

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