Monday, November 11, 2013


Wanderlust: A History of Walking
Rebecca Solnit

I first discovered Rebecca Solnit at the Vanderbilt library when I was looking for something else entirely, picking up Savage Dreams based almost entirely on its title. I knew something about Yosemite, less about protests, and nothing at all about nuclear tests over Nevada, but the book was compelling nevertheless. Like John McPhee, she writes creative nonfiction that leaps from subject to subject, but unlike him, she is present in her books, even though they aren't about her, as a minor, first-person narrator.

Wanderlust is about all kinds of walking - that of the flaneur, the rambler, the pilgrim, the landscape consumer, the protestor, the distance walker; in the city and the wilderness; for health, for anonymity, for escape, for fashion, for spiritual growth; about walking alone, walking together, and not walking at all. Compared to Savage Dreams, this is territory I know.

McPhee's books tend to be much more focused; Solnit is a bricoleur, astonishingly well-read and wide-ranging, editorializing and making observations that, only after hearing, become obvious. Consider: "Among the terms for prostitutes are streetwalkers, women of the streets, women on the town, and public women (and of course phrases such as public man, man about town, or man of the streets mean very different things than do their equivalents attached to women). … Had a group of women called themselves the Sunday Tramps, as did a group of Leslie Stephen's male friends, the monicker would have implied not that they went walking but that they engaged in something rather salacious on Sundays."

At other times she is simply acerbic, which is pleasant if one agrees with her: "Cities like Albuquerque, Phoenix, Houston, and Denver may or may nor have a dense urban core floating somewhere in their bellies like a half-digested snack…"

The thesis of the book is that the experience of walking is different depending on where you walk and why you walk - perhaps rather obvious, but she breaks it down. To whom is walking for leisure available? How does intent shape the experience of walking? As a consumer of hiking literature, I have read quite a few paeans to walking that glorify nature, preferably untrammeled, at the expense of urbanity, but Solnit's is more catholic, praising the woods, formal gardens, and dense urban cores alike. Its polar opposite is Cheryl Strayed's lovely Wild, which is an intense, highly personal illumination of one particular individual experiencing one kind of walking. (City walkers, in their turn, seem to suggest they consider any place else a bore.)

If one likes walking, Wanderlust is full of trivia that will enhance one's reputation with fellow enthusiasts. "Did you know," you can say at your next dinner party, "that the treadmill was invented a a tool to break the will of prisoners?" And if your guests are sociologists, follow up by drawing a parallel between it and the Panopticon, both of which modern society embraces. But as entertaining as the trivia is, the book is more worth reading for the connections it draws across and through ideas.