Reading "Orwell's Roses" by Rebecca Solnit

Happy New Year's Eve!

So, one of my resolutions for 2023 is that I want to do more non-escapist reading.

Why? And what had I been reading??

For the last three years I've been reading a lot of trashy books. Unless it was for work (biology/bioinformatics papers) or random infovore articles that I found online, I've read almost nothing but mystery novels, romance novels, and LitRPG. (Don't judge, it's been a weird three years. ;)

Now, LitRPG is all well and good (He Who Fights with Monsters is super fun!) and I had plenty of reasons to escape, but I was avoiding anything requiring an attention span, and my stack of Good But Serious Books was piling up. Every now and then I'd get a chance to read something more serious and I'd remember how much fun it was to read something that was well written and meaningful and horizon-expanding, but soon enough my attention span would lapse and I'd be back to reading LitRPG at 9pm at night.

SO.

Sometime in the last year, I picked up Orwell's Roses at our local bookstore, Avid Reader. I had been introduced to Rebecca Solnit's writing through her amazing book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, which Tracy Teal had recommended to me. While I hadn't (haven't yet!) finished that book, the parts that I had read were amazing. Sometime in 2022 I started following @RebeccaSolnit on Twitter, perhaps because I saw her retweeted by Malka Older (@m_older), and I found Solnit's tweets and articles inspirational. And through her tweets I found her book Hope In the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. That, in turn, became my end-of-quarter reading for December (and maybe more on that book later!)

This is all to say that for about a year, Orwell's Roses had been staring at me from my bookshelf. With its bright red cover, it's a distinctive book. Moreover, I've been a huge fan of Orwell's writing ever since reading Down and Out in Paris and London in my teens, and several scenes from that book remain burned into my memory. And so I decided that Orwell's Roses would be my next book to read!

What's "Orwell's Roses" about?

It's a lovely, meandering tale about Orwell's life and beliefs, and how his politics intersected with his love of gardening and farming. Along the way we are treated to extended (and very relevant!) digressions into other intersecting stories. It's kind of a biography, but also a partial history of certain kinds of thinking.

Two particular themes caught me the most. One was the discussion of "Bread and Roses", a political slogan linked to women's suffrage. The "bread" here refers to the basic needs of sustenance - food, water, housing, and the like. The "roses" refers to something a bit more indefinite - the freedom to pursue an independent life of the mind, whether it be art, music, literature, or something else. I can't possibly do justice to the discussion of this in the book, other than to say that the theme of "Bread for all, and Roses too" resonates in this age of COVID, r/antiwork, and union organizing.

The other theme that caught me is that of locality vs uniformity, or community vs systems, or bottom-up vs top-down. This is maybe a bit more entwined with my personal interests, and richer in my mind and hence harder to explain -- but it is also a theme that is guiding a lot of my reading choices, so I expect to get lots of practice thinking and maybe writing about it!

In brief, Solnit describes how Orwell took great pleasure in the particulars of gardening and farming, and grounded himself in the daily routines of his life. Solnit does a lovely job of connecting this to Orwell's writing, and talked about how taking joy in both productive and "non-productive" tasks (such as planting roses!) is an important and small-scale rebellion against the cult of productivity and grind that capitalism has instilled in our modern life. There were strong resonances with the book Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, as well as the "chickenization" theme of gig working introduced to me by Cory Doctorow. (In my imagination, Solnit and Doctorow have very productive regular chats over coffee. They live in the same city, I think, so it's a possibility, right? Oh to be a fly on the wall!)

I don't really have a conclusion here, other than that Orwell's Roses was a very rewarding read that made me think, and think differently. And it was a great book to break my fast on!

What book is next?

I'm planning to start on a new book today. I'm currently being eyed by Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer, which has been sitting on my shelf for almost a year... it looks like a thick book, but I'll just take it 30 minutes at a time and we'll see how it goes!

--titus

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