Book cover

River of Shadows
by Rebecca Solnit
Published: 2004
Read from: 11 Sep to 04 Nov
My rating: 🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟

There are a few writers for whom I will read anything they care to offer. Rebecca Solnit is one of them. She never fails to delight me, both with the ways she builds a sentence and, even more so, the way she builds bridges between ideas. Somehow, River of Shadows had eluded me for a while, but the light it throws on the character of Muybridge and Leland Stanford and how their joint obsession ultimately gave rise to the movies is beyond fascinating.

I read this as a Real Book, on paper, and not always with pencil in hand, which has good consequences and bad. The good; I do still love real books, for all the room they take up. Being able to look at the many photographs included without any technological nonsense is a treat. The bad; far fewer passages highlighted and noted. Or maybe that is a good?

The story is a complex braid, beautifully wrought. One strand is the railroads that united America, and the rapacious corruption of the railroad owners. The other is Muybridge the man, with all his idiosyncrasies and, above all, his obsession with ever faster photographic exposures. Together, as Solnit explains so well, Stanford the railroad baron and Muybridge the image maker annihilated space and time. But there are many other strands; to call them minor would be to do them a disservice.

There is Muybridge's efforts to photograph the wilderness of California, creating the demand for wilderness that still threatens to destroy it. There is the awful saga of his married life and the murder it provoked. There is the Modoc War, which Muybridge photographed, and the strange inversion of time and space that drove Captain Jack and his band to hold out for as long as they did. There is Stanford cruelly airbrushing Muybridge out of the motion studies and how, possibly as a result, Muybridge came to inspire artists in Europe. There is the birth of the movies and the growth of Hollywood, “the whole world and no place at all”. And behind it all, San Francisco, the city that made Muybridge possible and that he recorded in his virtuoso panoramas.

Throughout, Solnit flies from one idea to the other like one of Muybridge’s athletes in motion.

Speed is a basic survival skill for both predator and prey. But races have neither predator nor prey, only competitors. The race simulates the conditions of survival and awards those found most fit not with survival itself but with glory and money. In the nineteenth century a confusion of language arose between the activity and the category of the race, for Europeans and European Americans perceived progress as a race that they, the white race, were winning.

And of course, industrialisation measured efficiency by speed. “Time is money, and the less time used in manufacturing or shipping, the more money amassed”.

At times, Solnit's uncanny ability to tie together history and make it relevant is undone by an inability to look to the future, by no means unique to her. In an elaborate discussion of the outpourings of entertainment created “for watchers in the cave of representation,” she talks about “the thousands of video-rental stores around the country”. Fifteen years on, or more, all one can do is chuckle. By contrast, some sentences written, obviously, at the same time, are prescient.

Silicon Valley makes entertainment and war seem like one enterprise designed to control populations via the channeling of electrons through circuits, however divergent the details of their deployment.

It is in these final pages that she ties a final ribbon on the braid, noting that the house in Kingston upon Thames where Muybridge was born is now a computer store, “an outpost of Silicon Valley”.

The world seems run from Silicon Valley now, run by engineers whose decisions affect us all, those engineers whose constant question is never why, but only how.

My review on Goodreads.
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