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Wanderlust: A History of Walking Paperback – January, 2006
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What does it mean to be out walking in the world, whether in a landscape or a metropolis, on a pilgrimage or a protest march? In this first general history of walking, Rebecca Solnit draws together many histories to create a range of possibilities for this most basic act. Arguing that walking as history means walking for pleasure and for political, aesthetic, and social meaning, Solnit homes in on the walkers whose everyday and extreme acts have shaped our culture, from the peripatetic philosophers of ancient Greece to the poets of the Romantic Age, from the perambulations of the Surrealists to the ascents of mountaineers. With profiles of some of the most significant walkers in history and fiction - from Wordsworth to Gary Snyder, from Rousseau to Argentina's Mother of the Plaza de Mayo, from Jane Austen's Elizabeth Bennet to Andre Breton's Nadja - "Wanderlust" offers a provocative and profound examination of the interplay between the body, the imagination, and the world around the walker.
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Solnit lives in San Francisco, apparently not far from my daughter, near Golden Gate Park. Both enjoy walking in the most European of American cities. She commences by describing a familiar walk around a headland just north of Golden Gate Bridge, quipping on Heraclitus’s dictum on rivers: you never step onto the same trail twice. On the headland’s walk she relates her work in the ‘80’s, in Nevada, as an anti-nuclear activist, walking near test sites. Such statements as: “… a certain kind of wanderlust can only be assuaged by the acts of the body itself in motion, not the motion of the car, boat or plane,” helped “draw me in.”
As the subtitle indicates, it is the “history of walking,” and she does commence at the beginning, when our ancestors came down from the trees, stood upright, perhaps to see better, as they wandered out on the savannah, not to mention being able to carry a few things. She also found resonance in the first line from a book I read so very long ago, Robert Ardrey’s African genesis: A personal investigation into the animal origins and nature of man: “Not in innocence, and not in Asia, was mankind born.” She relates the various theories and academic in-fighting on this issue.
Solnit has also lived in rural New Mexico, and although not specifically religious, participated in the pilgrimage to Chimayo. As she says: “…walking cross-country let us be in that nonbeliever’s paradise, nature…” From Chimayo the author segues into other famous pilgrimage routes, such as Santiago de Compostela, where she observes: “When pilgrims begin to walk several things usually begin to happen to their perceptions of the world which continue over the course of the journey: they develop a changing sense of time, a heightening of the senses, and a new awareness of their bodies and the landscape…” I once would rent a holiday home in a small village in Provence, Velleron, and in the local bookstore picked up a copy of DE VELLERON A BETHLEEM which related the 10 month, 4650 kilometer walk of two very real religious pilgrims from that village, Claudia and Robert Mestelan, so they could be in Bethlehem, in the Holy Land, for Christmas, 2000. A remarkable achievement, for a couple in their ‘50’s, one that could not be duplicated today, due to the fighting in Syria.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau and William Wordsworth were both practitioners as well as theoreticians of the “art” and necessity of walking. They both claimed to do their best thinking while in motion. They were the godfathers of those who now walk for pleasure and not of necessity. Solnit covers numerous other authors, and has added to my list of “must read” books with the likes of John Muir’s A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, and the one she proclaims to be here favorite mountain memoir, Smoke Blanchard’s Walking Up and Down in the World : Memories of a Mountain Rambler.
Men and women are not equal when it comes to walking. The author devotes an entire chapter to that issue, starting with the horrific treatment of Caroline Wyburgh, age 19, who went out walking in Chatham, England, in 1870. Women must always carry a baggage of “considerations” that do not encumber a man when taking a stroll.
Ah, Paris. It is no surprise that the author has a chapter on walking in the City of Light, as well as exploring the concept of a “flaneur,” one who has the time to wander, and actually observe. Solnit has read much about and concerning the city, and concludes: “Such a density of literature had accumulated in Paris by the time of Nightwood (New Edition) that one pictures characters from centuries of literature crossing paths constantly, crowding each other, a Metro car full of heroines, a promenade populated by the protagonists of novels, a rioting mob of minor characters.” Soon thereafter, Solnit is in the antithesis of Paris, with its faux-this and faux-that, Las Vegas, and astutely notes how this city that represented the triumph of car-culture has become a place of strollers on “The Strip” due to the traffic jams.
The only error that I noted was on p. 134, where the poet Petrarch climbed Mt. Ventoux in 1335. The mountain is in France, and not Italy, as stated. Nonetheless, my personal standard for measuring the excellence of a book are the number of passages I have marked. A quick review indicates such marks on almost every other page. Solid thoughts, and witty aphorisms. A great book that will be referenced numerous times, and deserving of that special 6-star rating.
But the book is really not a history of walking. It's more of a history of European and American literature that contains some notes about walking. At least half the book is talking about people who talk about walking. Rebecca also tries to relate walking to sexism, racism, and several other isms when such linkages are weak or non-existant. If she wants to talk about isms, she should do so, but not by trying to make them about something they aren't. Sometimes a walk has meaning, and sometimes a walk is just a walk.
My great disappointment with the work lies in Rebecca's almost willful ignorance in places, and the things she leaves out or ignores. For instance she gives one sentence to the freekorperkultur (nudism) movement in Germany and saddles it with the term 'erotic'. In this she shows that she has no understanding of the import or intention of the movement, even though it has a deep impact on her subject. She ignores many things that don't fall into her realm of experience but which are important to the topic. Barefoot walking; actually experiencing the earth with your feet. Rebecca skips over the very complex bio-mechanical process of walking.
Every author writes a book because they have something to say. Often this can be summarized in a few sentences, but it takes a whole book to explain it. I am at a loss to summarize what Rebecca is trying to say with this work. I find it difficult to recommend. I found the first half of some interest, but past Part II, it is so scattered and boring that it isn't worth the electrons. If your interest is in a modern history of walking in Western literature, then this is the right book. If you are looking for a book about walking, then seek elsewhere.