on April 24, 2000
This book fulfils that vital function of art to make you re-evaluate something that might have seemed simple and ordinary. For a few days after reading this book, I could not stop thinking about walking - its history, implications, value etc. For my taste, I would have wanted the author to tell me more about what she thought of walking, rather than always relying on great names (Wordsworth, Benjamin, Long etc); but I love the idea of the book and the personality of the author that comes through - radical, humane, witty, sometimes wonderfully dandyish, at other times, impassioned and serious.
on December 14, 2000
I found this book to be a fascinating read because of Solnit's writing style and because of her commentary on the subject of walking. Although I have always enjoyed walking myself Solnit helped me understand some of the more philosophical reasons why. Contrary to the views of other reviewers Solnit does include her own commentary such as her experience on the Chimayo pilgrimage and as a woman walking down the streets of her own neighborhood in San Francisco. One may say Why not read the people Solnit quotes rather than Wanderlust, but the fact is Wanderlust increased my exposure to such works and helped me understand their context. Her perspective on the history of the freedom to walk is truly eye-opening; we take it for granted that these days we can pretty much walk anywhere we want to.
But, it's really an extended essay.
Solnit's "history of walking" is a surprising excursion in a vast and unsystematised subject area. Indeed, like eating and playing, walking is one of these emblematic human activities that are invested with wildly different cultural meanings. I picked up the book because I am an avid walker and mountaineer and, as I learned, an adherent to the British walking tour ethos. For me there is something fundamentally cleansing, wholesome and right about spending time in the great outdoors. However, this smug romanticism, this adhering to an "established religion for the middle class" is sternly criticised by the author of this book.
For Solnit walking is a quintessentially political activity. And the politics play out at different levels. First, walking is a bulwark against the erosion of the mind by the incessant contemporary rethoric of efficiency and functionality. The walker exposes herself to the accidental, the unexpected, the random and unscreened, and by doing so rebels against the speed and alienation endemic in our postindustrial world. Second, walking is also a reclamation of a physical and public space that is increasingly suburbanised and privatised. Solnit discusses how the early 20th century city was an arena for aesthetic experimentation and political agitation. Walkers and flaneurs, starting with De Quincey in London and Baudelaire in Paris, experimented with an urban underground culture suffused with eroticism and desire. Protest marchers all over the world and throughout the ages have relied on the democratic functions of the street to make their voices heard. Today, the scope for these kinds of trespasses are increasingly rare due to encroaching private property rights and a soulless, panoptic urban architecture. Hence, thus Solnit, we need to revitalise a counterculture to walk in resistance to the post-industrial and post-modern loss of space, time and embodiment. Last and perhaps not least, walking is and will remain the domain of the amateur. It is one of these few areas of human activity where a hierarchy based on expertise makes very little sense. Everyone, barring physical disabilities, is in principle able to be an expert walker.
Beyond the political, there is also a phenomenological dimension to walking which is quite deftly described by Solnit as an "alignment between mind, body and the world". Whoever has spent a couple of days on the trail knows that once the rhythm has been established, one becomes much more alert to minute variations in sensory input (smell, colour, temperatur). Meanwhile, the mind starts to wander much more freely. Solnit writes: "This creates an odd consonance between internal and external passage, one that suggests that the mind is also a landscape of sorts and that walking is one way to traverse it."
Solnit's smart and cogent survey of 3 centuries of walking is appropriately brought into relief by her supple and subtle prose which is a real pleasure to read. Her writing is warmly personal - with a tone that modulates unexpectedly between stridency and vulnerability - as well as erudite. There is none of the pedantic selfconsciousness that spoils the discourse of many academic writers and popularisers alike. After "Wanderlust" I went on to read Solnit's "Field guide to getting lost" which, although not in the same league, confirms her qualities as an engaging personal voice.
on November 28, 2001
When I walk, which is often, I like the serendipity of the experience, the unknown that meets me, the new perspective that greets me, the unexpected that grows from the experience. Reading this book has been like a walk.
At times I was enthused at what I read (on how Las Vegas is becoming more of a walker's world). At times I was encumbered with laborious literary chronicling of walkers and walking (the writings of Rousseau and Wordsworth). At times I was ecstatic with a simple relationship (the mind at three miles per hour). At times I was educated (the role of walking in the Paris revolutions). And at times I was given a new perspective (how women have dealt with the male's use of walking to control them).
While not quite knowing what to expect when I first saw this book, I thought it would be a great read because a history of something so common as walking could be so interesting. And this book is that. The author looks at the relationship between walking and thinking, between walking and culture, between walking and history, between walking and nature. And she delves into the interplay between walking and how the body uses it to jar the imagination and creativity to enable the walker to see the world around her in a different way.
The book drags at parts because I don't have a particular interest in that subject, just like at times a walk will become tedious. But, overall, this book is much like a walk: a discovery by accident.
on January 30, 2001
The worst that can be said of this piercing inquiry is that the broad forest of walking it depicts -- walking's effects on the pilgrim, the protester, the gawker in Las Vegas; its evolution from garden to countryside to modern city; its relation to writing and thinking itself -- left some readers bumping into the trees, and seeing only stars and not the bigger picture. But the bigger picture is here, laid out in stunning detail (she doesn't just say that labyrinths have made a recent comeback, but describes their makers and impacts in a variety of disciplines(art, garden design, spirituality) and countries, and what it feels like to walk on a replica of the Chartres labyrinth). I cannot recall reading a work that so seamlessly melded personal experience with a broad but profound reading of literature and history. Reminds me of Terry Tempest Williams, and in some of the same terrain. I'm headed back to read Solnit's earlier work "Migrations," about Irish history. I'll bet it's another forest well worth meandering through.
on January 29, 2001
When I picked up this book at the local bookstore it was an impulse. But after reading this book i found that it was exactly what I had been looking for. All my life I have been using walking as my way to unwind from school or just to vent some frustration. It seemed to reaffirm what I thought was my true path and showed my some ways to keep the trip long. If you are the person who walks for the sake of walking or to focus your thoughts it's for you. If you are the type who does it to exersise or something else then im not so sure but all around its a good read for everyone.
on December 5, 2007
Let me preface this somewhat negative review by stating that I come from a family of walking enthusiasts and I myself am an avid collector of all literature dealing with personal locomotion. I must therefore judge this effort via comparison to the great pantheon of walking literature and not merely as an isolated effort. If you are a walking neophyte this book may well be the catalyst that sparks your interest for further study but I would not suggest this work as a thorough or exhaustive study of two legged ambulation. Indeed, this scant 335 page work rarely delves beyond walking and completely fails to examine other forms of personal transport such as tottering, strolling, or even waddling. It must therefore suffer in comparison to the exquisite detail in Sarah Bernhardt's "One leg too few: A history of hopping", in which the author painstakingly details and diagrams the kinetics achieved by Anthony Cumia, the only one legged person capable of moseying. It also suffers from a very sparse history of walking and does not cover any of the critical walking related achievements from our rich colonial times. I believe that most readers will be greatly displeased to know that no mention is made of Margaret Brent's trailblazing non-stop saunter from Philadelphia to Boston or the ensuing legal trials that resulted in her conviction and lengthy incarceration for inciting civil unrest by "walking in a salacious and wanton manner". While most historical treatises on American women's suffragist movements make no mention of the early campaigners for equal walking rights I certainly expect more from a novel claiming to be a "History of Walking". I know that the casual reader may take offense to such detailed scrutiny but it is a great sense of passion for the subject which guides my critical eye.
on April 5, 2008
This is a new way to look at cultural history and the way we live our lives that is especially relevant to our present day car culture. Wordsworth is estimated to have walked 170,000 miles in his life and sparked a cottage industry of walking tours in England and Europe. Solnit makes me realize that new cultural turns and socially revolutionary ways of living and thinking seem to coincide with new approaches to walking the land.
The history of walking is unwritten. Walking allows us to be in our bodies in the world. The motions of the mind cannot be traced, but the feet can. The author walks us through an old Nike missile range. She protests with others at a Nevada test site. With Thoreau, Rebecca Solnit is both a poet of nature and a critic of society. Walking as a conscious cultural act begins with Rousseau. Nietzsche turned to solitary walks for recreation. In Rousseau's ideology walking is the emblem of the simple man. Rousseau portrays walking as both an exercise of simplicity and an opportunity for contemplation. Walking encourages a kind of unstructured associative thinking. A lone walker is both present and detached. Kierkegaard found himself in such a state. He proposed that the mind works best when surrounded by distraction. Husserl claimed that by walking we understand our bodies in relationship to the world. Walking upright preceded the development of the large brain in man. The pilgrimage is one of the basic modes of walking. There is a symbiosis between journey and arrival in pilgrimage. The Civil Rights Movement was tempered with the imagery of pilgrimage more than most struggles. The first fund-raising walk, a walkathon for the March of Dimes, began in 1970. On a religious pilgrimage in New Mexico the author encountered a Cadillac with the stations of the cross painted on it. The promenade is a subset of walking. Then there is the customized car and the cruise--low riders.
William and Dorothy Wordsworth were vigorous walkers. Wordsworth and his peers seem to be the founders of a tradition. The English landscape garden asked to be explored. The emphasis on the pictorial and the existence of scenic tourism were invented in the eighteenth century. Walks are everywhere in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. The garden walk provided relief form the group. Wordsworth tried to understand the French Revolution by walking the streets of Paris. Walking was Wordsworth's means of composition. Hazlitt's essay on walking became the foundation of a genre. Bruce Chatwin did not distinguish nomadism from walking. John Muir went from Indianapolis to the Florida Keys in 1867. Since English mountaineers found the Alpine Club in 1857, outdoor organizations have been proliferating. The first High Trip under the auspices of the Sierra Club took place in 1901. A taste for the wilderness is culturally determined. Everywhere but in Britain, walking became hiking. In England and elsewhere there was a problem of access to the land. The Highland Clearances,1780-1855, for one example, displaced quantities of people. In 1824 the Association for the Protection of Ancient Footpaths was founded near York. Walking focuses not on the boundary lines of land ownership but on paths, a sort of circulatory system of the whole. The YMCA was an early sponsor of walking clubs. The history of both urban and rural walking is a history of freedom. Dickens indicated the other things urban walking can be--police, detectives, criminals. Virginia Woolf, daughter of a great walker, wrote an essay on urban walking. Walter Benjamin described the Paris street, now a landscape, now a room. Hannah Arendt wrote in the 1960's one could feel at home In Paris.
The book is crammed full of literary and cultural studies. The few autobiographical sections and sentences are the most moving. The reader is physically transported to mountain tops, labyrinths, and to that in-between state, the liminal state, achieved through the rhythm of walking, being situated between one's past and future identities. Citizens in the street support democracies from the time of the French Revolution to 1989 when history was made in the streets of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany. Walking has been an established aspect of courtship. There is a dark side. Merely walking in the wrong place or at the wrong time could place a woman under suspicion of wrongdoing. Sylvia Plath wrote that being born a woman was her awful tragedy. Women are the primary targets of sexualized violence.
Freedom to walk is useless without some place to go. Work and home were never separate until the factory system came of age. People cannot walk easily through suburban sprawl. Walking can become a sign of powerlessness. In the nineteenth century train travel changed perceptions of time and place. Suburbs make walking ineffective as transportation. Factories isolate, suburbs isolate: the body has ceased to be utilitarian to the upscale consumer of outdoor gear and exercise equipment, but is recreational. England remains pedestrian in scale. The contemporary artist most dedicted to exploring walking in his art is English, Richard Long. In some respects his work resembles travel writing. The book ends in Las Vegas. The city is unfriendly to pedestrians. The development of the super casinos and the automobile-free strip support the interests and the curiosity of walkers and traveliers. Bravo to Rebecca Solnit for her engaging work.
on October 27, 2005
In Wanderlust, author Rebecca Solnit looks at walking and its role in various historical and cultural contexts. The book isn't meant to be comprehensive, or study walking in all cultures and in all periods of time; as the author herself points out, the book is shaped as a kind of walk itself, a ramble through various topics that have interested her personally.
Wanderlust covers a good variety of areas - pilgrimages, Wordsworth, streetwalkers, labyrinths, disappearing pedestrian space, to name a few - and how the book succeeds is in getting you to think in new ways about the fundamental act of walking and to examine its varying function and significance in (mainly Western) society over the centuries. Solnit even meditates on how walking is linked to thought and memory and how we regard our lives as a spatial narrative, a journey with various milestones.
I thought the book was very interesting and well-written; the language was precise, and especially wonderful were moments where Solnit reflected on her own walks. The prose is both lyrical and absorbing, rich with anecdotes, character sketches, and evocations of place.