Monday, May 27, 2013

And We're Walking... We're Walking...

Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit

"Moving on foot seems to make it easier to move in time," Rebecca Solnit posits. "The mind wanders from plans to recollections to observations."

I find it fascinating to see what others highlight in the Kindle version of books, so I leave that feature turned on while I'm reading. Twelve people, it turns out, found that quote enlightening in chapter one. Solnit's cogent observations about walking lasted well into this book, however, well beyond the stamina of those original dozen or so highlighters. Like many Kindle books, this one was rife with eager early highlighters who pooped out. Solnit manages in later chapters to connect walking to politics, to landscape, to law, to sex, to sociology. It is a shame that those readers didn’t keep going. Or keep highlighting.

Several of the historical and literary figures Solnit profiles are those who set out on long, solitary journeys of endurance. Journeys that test the limits of their bodies. In a way by creating such a thorough, well-researched book that examines the subject--walking--from every possible angle, Solnit creates a bit of an endurance test for her readers too. Or at least, an experience that parallels the journeys of characters in so many walking books.
"In such travel literature there is no overarching plot, except for the obvious one of getting from point A to point B (and for the more introspective, the self-transformation along the way). In a sense these books on walks for their own sakes are the literature of paradise, the story of what can happen when nothing profound is wrong, and so the protagonist—healthy, solvent, uncommitted—can set out seeking minor adventure. In paradise, the only things of interest are our own thoughts, the character of our companions, and the incidents and appearance of the surroundings."
Though it was written after Wanderlust was published, I couldn't help but think of Wild, Cheryl Strayed's one-woman journey along the Pacific Crest Trail when I read that. There is a specific genre of books--"walks for their own sakes" that are both inspiring and something I think we crave--and when these include significant challenges they're often quite compelling.

But no matter what the endurance experience, unfortunately not everybody makes it. Solnit started to lose me along the trail.

Wanderlust examines walking--something so basic, something so essential to our existence that we take for granted and depend on for our entire lives--for its social, cultural, religious, and historical implications. I particularly enjoyed the sections on Classical and Enlightenment philosophy and their connections to walking, and the excerpts from authors like Jane Austen that showed how walking impacts character. The book looks at walking in nature, the suburbs, the city, and the garden. Solnit grounds her observations in first person accounts of her own walks. She begins in the fringes of San Francisco and ends in the chaos of Las Vegas.

Solnit writes so much here, and so well, that it's hard to find fault with it. But after a while it all started to blur together for me. Wanderlust drags its feet a bit when it heads away from the path for too long to pursue a tangent. In these sections it begins to feel like a textbook, and I think in so doing, loses a bit of its magic. Solnit’s strongest writing is that which is grounded in place, in the specifics of a historical figure’s life, or in literature. There's still more here to like than not, but this isn't a book that feels like a short walk through the park. This is a pack-your-backpack-and-get-out-on-the-trail-long-term kind of book.

My recommendation: Read. But go slow so you don't get blisters.

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