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Mountains of the Mind: How Desolate and Forbidding Heights Were Transformed into Experiences of Indomitable Spirit Hardcover – June 3, 2003

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; 1ST edition (June 3, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375421807
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375421808
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.6 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #448,258 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Mountains haven't always been viewed as magnificent tests of bravery or even as scenic vacation spots-only in the last few centuries have Westerners found them worthy of attention. As British writer Macfarlane (the London Review of Books; the Times Literary Supplement) points out, "until well into the 1700s, travelers who had to cross the Alpine passes often chose to be blindfolded," sparing themselves the terrors of the view. His point throughout this strangely compelling volume is that our attitudes toward mountains are very much a cultural product, a rich mix of theological, geological, artistic and social forces. With the development of geological science in the early 1800s, mountains, once viewed as "giant souvenirs of humanity's sinfulness," came to be seen as part of the earth's historical record. Recognized as "the great stone book" of history, mountains opened a window into "deep time," a glimpse of eternity. The thrill of vertigo, the infatuation with the unknown, the Social Darwinist challenge of the survival of the fittest, the march of British imperialism, even advances in cartography-all shaped the social imagination of mountains. As Western adventurers were increasingly lured from the Swiss Alps to the Himalayas, Macfarlane closes his study with the ill-fated Mallory expeditions to Everest, so mythic they almost defy analysis. The book itself is rather like some idiosyncratic, hand-drawn map of terra incognita. But for romantic, mountain-struck readers, Macfarlane's rich thoughts may make snow clouds clear, revealing new peaks and new wonders. B&w illus.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.


“This is the sort of book that restores confidence in the travel genre. Erudite, full of information you did not know you wanted to know, and charged with the author’s singular passion for his subject.”
—Robyn Davidson, author of Tracks

“A compelling meditation on what draws man to risk himself to be on top of empty, dangerous crags, this is an assemblage of dreamers and athletes, the bloody-minded and crazed––all those proud and ultimately helpless protagonists who take on the lofty slopes of the mountains which are Macfarlane’s fascination. He has been up there and come back down through the foothills to offer us his thoughtful and gracious elegy, telling us eloquently the secret of it all, which is that no one can ever truly conquer a mountain.”
—Benedict Allen, editor of The Faber Book of Exploration

“If you have ever wondered why people climb mountains, here is your answer. Part history, part personal observation, this is a fascinating study of our (sometimes fatal) obsession with height. A brilliant book, beautifully written.”
—Fergus Fleming, author of Ninety Degrees North

“What a vertiginously skilled writer! This is a terrific exploration, abundant with sensorial nuance, of our human obsession with stony heights. Despite its apt title and the history of ideas that it expertly narrates, Macfarlane’s book really shows how the Earth’s mountains, cloud-kissed and implacable, steadily resist and refute the successive attempts of the human mind to scale them.”
—David Abram, author of The Spell of the Sensuous

More About the Author

Robert Macfarlane's Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination (2003), won the Guardian First Book Award, the Somerset Maugham Award, and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award. Robert Macfarlane is a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He lives in Cambridge with his family.

Customer Reviews

4.4 out of 5 stars
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So well, that it is impossible to read this book quickly.
D. Roorda
These ideas are very mixed up with notions of how the earth was created and has evolved geologically and glacially over the centuries.
Also the inclusion of the geologic history was a great addition when compared to many other books on high places.
John Zim

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Leland M. Searles on July 19, 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
From the opening recollection to the last sentence, Macfarlane's history of how mountains have been imagined left me aching to read more. The final words took me by surprise; I fully expected to turn the page for at least a few more spellbinding paragraphs. While the author's own experiences with altitude, ice, and snow are interspersed throughout, this is not at all a flimsy excuse to offer up a personal memoir or a coming-of-age story. Rather, his own stories effectively illustrate his larger points. The final problem of the plot, Mallory's fatal ascent toward the summit of Everest, lingers throughout as the essential riddle, and yet Macfarlane skillfully avoids letting that tragedy overwhelm the rest of the book. Every historical nuance, every detail of landscape, every observation of human endeavor is crafted through the comprehension of one who is sensitive to his own place in the historical development he chronicles. It is difficult not to recall Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams as far as the depth of understanding and the quality of the writing.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By "sjwillard" on June 22, 2003
Format: Hardcover
I live in Colorado, and spend a lot of my spare time in the mountains. As a result, I've got into mountain literature in a big way. I've read a bunch of the great mountain works: Joe Simpson's Touching the Void and Maurice Herzog's Annapurna among them, also some stuff by Jon Krakauer (Eiger Dreams and Into Thin Air).
I'd add this book to that list immediately, which I bought because I saw an advert for it in Harpers.Unlike most mountain books, it's not a straight story of an expedition. Instead, Macfarlane moves back and forth within time, writing about how people through history have "fallen in love with mountains". He also writes - and this is what tops the book out for me - about his own experiences in the mountains. The attention he pays to the landscape, and the way he writes about snow and ice, really spoke to me. Don't read this book if you want gung-ho stories of endurance: go to it for philosophy and beauty. 5 stars; bring on the next one.
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23 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Arthur Digbee VINE VOICE on March 30, 2008
Format: Paperback
In this book, MacFarlane tries to trace the process by which humans - - well, European humans - - came to view mountains as places of beauty, glory, and adventure. He doesn't succeed in giving us an answer but he provides a lot of stories, and a little history, on these thems.

He builds the story around themes such as scientific research into geology, glaciers, and the nature of time; fear and adrenaline; fascination with altitude; and the joys of walking off the map into uncharted regions. The final substantive chapter is a narrative of George Mallory's attempts on Everest, written as a single coherent story that works very nicely.

In contrast to the Everest chapter, most of book is a collection of relatively short essays, bundled as chapters. Each essay one is about the length of a newspaper or magazine article, and they seem to have been recycled from MacFarlane's contributions to these kinds of outlets. This makes each chapter a collection of essays around a theme. When it works, it can be thought-provoking. Unfortunately, MacFarlane doesn't make major points or build an argument around these themes, leaving unanswered the great question of mountaineering (and of this book): why?

MacFarlane also mixes personal anecdotes with the other essays. As he confesses in the acknowledgments section at the end, his editor made him do this. I'm afraid that this is how they read, too, as inserted bits rather than as coherent parts of each chapter. They also unfold in a strange way, with MacFarlane hiking up a Scottish peak in one but helicoptering up a glacier in the Tian Shian later in the book - - only gradually does the reader realize that the author is a serious mountaineer.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By D. Hammerbeck on November 24, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I have read the edition entitled "Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination," an English 2004 Granta Publication bought in Kathmandu. This is an interesting series of essays following the development and transitional phases of Western European conceptions of the "mountains" and exploring the mountains. In fact, that is my biggest warning about the book. MacFarlane never comes to terms with his Eurocentric, indeed Anglo-centric conception of mountains. And this really limits the book. Yes, it is interesting to read about now the mountains changed, from an British perspective, from a place to fear to one where fear was courted as a test of character, and an affirmation of life itself.

But other cultures, such as where I live in Nepal, have been living in the mountains for centuries before what is essentially an Enlightenment project - scaling the heights of the world as a humanist exploration of identity - starts to occur. Buddhist monks, travellers and other explorers have been travelling and living at great heights in the Himalaya for, well we don't know how long. But caves used by lamas and pandits dot the high areas of the Himalayas as do gompas (Buddhist temples). Caves have been found in Upper Mustang dating back over 2000 years. Milarepa, the Buddhist sage, lived in a cave near the Gangapurna glacier above Manang, Annapurna Himal, over 700 years ago. And as a lot of MacFarlane's book deals with people travelling and exploring the mountains, not just climbing them, the omissions of the world's true high mountain cultures, that of not just the peoples of the Himalaya, Karakoram and Hindu Kush, but also the Andes and East Africa needs addressing.
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