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Mountains of the Mind: Adventures in Reaching the Summit Paperback – July 13, 2004
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His story begins three centuries ago, when mountains were feared as the forbidding abodes of dragons and other mysterious beasts. In the mid-1700s the attentions of both science and poetry sparked a passion for mountains; Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Lord Byron extolled the sublime experiences to be had on high; and by 1924 the death on Mt Everest of an Englishman named George Mallory came to symbolize the heroic ideals of his day. Macfarlane also reflects on fear, risk, and the shattering beauty of ice and snow, the competition and contemplation of the climb, and the strange alternate reality of high altitude, magically enveloping us in the allure of mountains at every level.
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“Fascinating stuff. . . a clever premise. . . . Goes back three centuries, showing how a few brainy opinion makers created the outdoor image.” —The New York Times Book Review
"A convincing book of historical evidence alongside his own oxygen-deprived experiences in an attempt to answer the age old question, 'Why climb the mountain?' "--San Francisco Chronicle
“Early mountaineers were lost for words to describe the splendor of the mountains, but Robert Macfarlane is not; in particular, he has a gift for arresting similes.” –The Times Literary Supplement
“Of all the books published to mark the 50th anniversary of climbing Mount Everest Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind stands out as by far one of the most intelligent and interesting. . . in a style that shows he can be as poetic as he is plucky.”–The Economist
“At once a fascinating work of history and a beautifully written mediation on how memory, imagination, and the landscape of mountains are joined together in our minds and under our feet.” –Forbes
“A compelling meditation. . . Macfarlane is. . . the perfect mountain guide through blue crevasse fields, ice walls, prayer flags, Sherpas and Shangri Las. He’s 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, author of The Faber Book of Exploration
“Macfarlane, a mountain lover and climber, has a visceral appreciation of mountains. . . . He is an engaging writer, his commentary, always crisp and relevant, leavened by personal experience beautifully related.”–The Observer (UK)
“Macfarlane writes with tremendous maturity, elegance and control. . . . A powerful debut, a remarkable blend of passion and scholarship.” –Evening Standard (UK)
“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: The Quest for the North Pole
“A new kind of exploration writing, perhaps even the birth of a new genre, which doesn’t just defy classification–it demands a whole new category of its own.”–The Telegraph (UK)
“There are many books on climbing and climbers, and this is one of the best and most unusual I have read.”–The Times (UK)
“An imaginative, original essay in cultural history–a book that evokes as well as investigates the fear and wonder of high places.” –William Fiennes, author of The Snow Geese
“A crisp historical study of the sensations and emotions people have brought to (and taken from) mountains. . . . Macfarlane intelligently probes the push/pull of the peaks. . . . Sharp and enticing.” –Kirkus Reviews
From the Inside Flap
Mountains of the Mind is at once an enthralling work of history, an intimate account of Macfarlanes own
- Publisher : Vintage; Reprint edition (July 13, 2004)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 320 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0375714065
- ISBN-13 : 978-0375714061
- Item Weight : 10.4 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.13 x 0.65 x 7.99 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #95,393 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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"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?"
This is plain nonsense. Again and again the author tells us - or hints strongly - that what draws people to the mountains is the unknown and the extra-ordinary and the sublime. People are drawn to mountains who long to get away from the 'why and wherefore' of everyday banality. This is a yearning that has never tugged on this reviewer, clearly.
Mountain adventure books, are, for the most part, adrenaline hits (after which you throw away the needle).
This book is unique as far as I am concerned, and its pleasures can be drawn out deeply and pondered on at leisure in repeated readings.
Yes, it is an uneven experience, and, as such, is consistent with the subject matter of the book. There is serendipity and pot-boiling and fascinating discovery, meandering and an occasional breathtaking views.
You get a rich cross-section of MacFarlane's writing styles, from historical to biographical, but the mixed diet and pace I found a reason for satisfaction from an author obviously hopelessly in love with (as well as fascinated and horrified by) mountains and mountain culture. An author as articulate and entertaining you don't find every day.
Having dragged myself up peaks for most of my four decades on this planet, I often found myself smiling at how RM richly articulated the mystique and cultural imperative of mountain-going which I was somehow unconscious of until now.
A lovely book for luxuriating in the lore and the lure of mountains.
Top reviews from other countries
Although I have always enjoyed fell walking I am no mountaineer, and I tend to frown upon some of the risk takers, but I did find that this book helped me understand better why so many are tempted to the heights. Great read, and I look forward to receiving Robert Macfarlane's next book, out soon.
The premise of this book is, potentially, a difficult one. It's one thing to be a lover of the mountains and just 'get' what it's like being amongst the peaks, but it's entirely another to try to explain that over the full length of a book. Hence the mix of climbing history, geology, personal memoir and religion which makes up 'Mountains of the Mind', subtitled 'A History of a Fascination'.
I must admit that when I bought this book I missed the subtitle*, so I probably went into this read on the wrong foot. I was expecting (and looking for) a travelogue that would sweep me back up amongst the mountain peaks in this tiresome year of non-travel, but if I'd read the full title properly I'd have realised that this is more of a history of mountain attraction. Some of the history had me riveted (for example the chapter on Mallory's fatal attraction to Everest), but in other places I feel he got too caught up in trying to give a fully comprehensive chronological account of British climbing development. In my mind that's a different book, and I would have loved if he'd spent a little less time back in the 1700s and focused more on modern climbing. For example, what drives 20,000 people - many of them inexperienced tourists - to climb Mont Blanc every year, despite helicopters lifting on average a body a day from the peaks above Chamonix in climbing season?
That said, Macfarlane is both an explorer himself and a talented wielder of the pen, and overall I really enjoyed this book. When he wasn't bogged down in the extensiveness of his own research, Macfarlane's knowledge and passion for the mountains is translated into wonderful writing that brings you shivering to the edge of many a snowy precipice. His own climbing adventures were fascinating - in fact, I'd have loved to have seen more of those memoirs in place of some of the historical detail.
Despite my niggles (and again, my fault for going in with the wrong expectation), this book did teleport me back to the mountains for a few days, and has left me with a hunger for some further mountain reading.
* In my defence this book seems to have a number of editions, many of which have 'adventures in reaching the summit' as the subtitle, which is closer to what I was expecting.
The book ranges from scholarly examinations of how various literary luminaries reacted to and thought about mountains, to geology and natural history, to highly personal accounts of expeditions McFarlane has taken part in, interwoven with some thrilling tales of first ascents, desperate rescues, and the like. As a whole, it does hold together well, and some of the source material he uses from past writers is really interesting. McFarlane's literary background shines through as he elucidates on Shelley, Coleridge, Byron, and Goethe's responses to the Alps, as well as more expected Naturalists and travellers' accounts, before a final lengthy chapter where he recounts George Mallory's doomed attempts on Everest in the 1920s in the light of what he's already explained about mountains in the Western imagination.
If you're looking for a book about mountaineering, or some thrilling tales of derring do, there are better books than this. If you've already read a lot of those, though, and you want a more thoughtful book which really wrestles with the questions of what is so special about mountains and why are people driven to risk their lives climbing them, then this is a unique and fascinating read. I'm probably being harsh giving 4 rather than 5 stars, but I felt, if anything, that some sections felt a little light and the writer would have benefited from a bit more length to really build on some points. I'd have gladly have read another hundred pages.