- Hardcover: 448 pages
- Publisher: Viking; 1st edition (October 11, 2012)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0670025119
- ISBN-13: 978-0670025114
- Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.2 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 108 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #243,332 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot Hardcover – October 11, 2012
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A literature professor and prodigious perambulator, Macfarlane has walked in England, Scotland’s Isle of Lewis, and elsewhere and describes his experiences here. While descriptive observations of trails and vistas inform his presentation, Macfarlane’s animating idea is the construction of a meditative sensibility that involves imagining history, exulting in nature, and interpreting literature. Macfarlane confides that his inspiration for walking-writing is Edward Thomas, author of The Icknield Way (1913), a foot travelogue that Macfarlane’s loosely replicates, routewise; England’s southern hills, the chalk downs, are where Thomas ambled. Macfarlane’s contemporary peregrinations partake of a fine-grained feeling for the pathway, encounters with fellow itinerants, and the occasional ghost-haunted campsite. With a penchant for neologism and literary allusion, Macfarlane seeks out ancient footpaths across an Essex mudflat, on a section of the pilgrim’s way to Spain’s Santiago de Compostela, within a circumambulation of a Chinese mountain sacred to Buddhism, and sea routes around Lewis. Concluding with Thomas’ biography––he was killed in WWI––Macfarlane renders his feelings toward landscapes in ruminative, mysterious hues. --Gilbert Taylor
Praise for The Old Ways
“A gorgeous book about physical movement and the movement of memory…To describe Macfarlane as a philosopher of walking is to undersell the achievement of The Old Ways; his prose feels so firmly grounded, resistant to abstraction. He wears his polymath intelligence lightly as his mind roams across geology, archeology, fauna, flora, architecture, art, literature and urban design, retrieving small surprises everywhere he walks.” —The New York Times Book Review
“With a steady command of the literature and history of each place he visits, [Macfarlane] tries ‘to read landscapes back into being.’ His sentences bristle with the argot of cartographers, geologists, zoologists, and botanists.” —The New Yorker
“A quiet, serious book, purposeful and carefully made, and, as always with Macfarlane, written in a prose at once so thick and rich you want to sink into it bodily and so fresh it threatens to bear you aloft.” —slate.com
"Macfarlane seems to know and have read everything, he steadily walks and climbs through places that most of us would shy away from and his every sentence rewrites the landscape in language crunchy and freshly minted and deeply textured. Surely the most accomplished (and erudite) writer on place to have come along in years." —Pico Iyer
"Luminous, possessing a seemingly paradoxical combination of the dream-like and the hyper-vigilant, The Old Ways is, as with all of Macfarlane's work, a magnificent read. Each sentence can carry astonishing discovery." —Rick Bass
“In Macfarlane, British travel writing has a formidable new champion… Macfarlane is read above all for the beauty of his prose and his wonderfully innovative and inventive way with language…he can write exquisitely about anywhere.”—William Dalrymple, The Observer
“[An] extraordinary book…it has made me feel that I myself am always walking some eternal track, sharing its pleasures and hardships with unaccountable others, treading its immemorial footprints, linking me with all the generations of man and beast, and connecting in particular the visionary author of the book, as he unrolls his sleeping bag beneath the stars, with this bemused reviewer beside the fire.”—Jan Morris, The Telegraph
“Every Robert MacFarlane book offers beautiful writing, bold journeys, and an introduction to places and authors you have never heard of before but wish you had always known about. But The Old Ways is different: somehow larger, more subtle, lingering in the mind and body just a bit stronger. With its global reach and mysterious Sebaldian structure, this is MacFarlane’s most important book yet.” —David Rothenberg
“In this intricate, sensuous, haunted book, each journey is part of other journeys and there are no clear divisions to be made…the walking of paths is, to [Macfarlane], an education, and symbolic, too, of the very process by which we learn things: testing, wandering about a bit, hitting our stride, looking ahead and behind.” —Alexandra Harris, The Guardian
“[Macfarlane] is gripped by a vision of the earth as a network of paths, dating from far back in prehistory…from the very first page…you know that the most valuable thing about The Old Ways is going to be the writing…it is like reading a prose Odyssey sprinkled with imagist poems.” —John Carey, The Sunday Times
“A book about what we put into landscape, and what it puts into us. If you submit to its spell you finish it in different shape than you set out: a bit wiser, a bit lonelier, a bit happier, a whole lot better informed.” —Sam Leith, The Spectator
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Another reviewer asked for maps. I read this book, in retrospect, in the best way possible. Reading it in the Kindle app on my iPad, I could easily look up the flowers and birds he sees, and the geological and local terms he uses. When he writes a lengthy meditation on the art of a painter of the British Downs, I could Google the artist and see examples of his art.
Best of all, by far, I used Google Earth to not only track his path but to see what he saw. When he describes a mountain in Tibet as having three intersecting ridges, I could move around a three dimensional image of the mountain, and also of the valley from which MacFarlane was looking. When he walked across a Scottish Isle, I could track his path around a lake, past a mountain, and across the heath. When he talked about the terraced hillsides outside Ramallah and the Israeli settlements, I could see those, too: the hills circled by ancient terracing, and the subdivision-like streets lined with identical houses and lots under construction.
I'm now going to buy the hardcover version, because this is a book to keep and to re-read. But I highly recommend reading it with the Internet, especially Google Earth, at hand.
I had started reading this book from the library, but after reading another review, I realized how much richer an experience reading it could be if I got the Kindle edition and googled the flora, fauna, and geographical features along the way. So now I will read it that way--enlisting Google Earth at times, as well--even though I really prefer books made of paper to digital ones.
The writing is beautiful, wonderful powers of description, and some gripping stories and other information about the places where he walked. I can't forget the night he camped all alone in an ancient "circle" in Britain and had a blood-curdling experience of the sort that had (as he found out only later) sent a bunch of tough bikers fleeing the place in the middle of the night. Then there was also his experience of walking for hours across the tide-exposed sands to an island, where it could mean death to miss the path where the sand was firm or to still be out there when the next tide came in; and there were no longer any good markers on the path. I never even knew that sort of "road" existed. There are, apparently, also courses to follow in the sea that are like "roads." Altogether a great book, as is his The Wild Places. I have that one, too, and plan to get Mountains of the Mind as well.
Here, he breaks free of England altogether, going as far afield as China, where the book truly began to relentlessly take hold of my thoughts and feelings. The book is both erudite and poetic, as the other reviewers have all mentioned. It's full of lovely lines like,
"But other gannets were on their hunts, slamming down into the water after fish invisible to me; you could see how they might pierce a hull. They came back out of the sea like white flowers unfurling."
Good stuff. But, make no mistake, the book is not merely a travelogue of walking and wilderness. At its heart is the mysterious, sometimes mystical overlapping of landscape and mindscape, or perhaps, to indulge in neologism, soulscape. As MacFarlane writes at the beginning of the book:
"When I think back to the outer miles of that walk, I now recall a strong disorder of perception that caused illusions of the spirit as well as the eye. I recall thought becoming sensational; the substance of landscape so influencing mind that mind's own substance was altered."
This is the type of experience MacFarlane cherishes, and, as it happens, so do I. There is also his continued devotion to poet Edward Thomas, clearly MacFarlane's muse, even in the previous book. Indeed, this book can and should be read as a tribute to the mystical insight MacFarland feels that Thomas found in walking, but which MacFarlane feels he can't quite reach in the way Thomas did. But MacFarlane has more than enough of his own perilous and eldritch experiences to suffice in this book, far away from cosy Cambridge, to grip even the most intrepid armchair traveller and to cause his/her scalp to tingle with a sense of the uncanny in our outer and inner worlds.
A harrowing and splendid read.
Most recent customer reviews
I often read and then read aloud to my partner passages that take my breath away.