Book Review: Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit

Readers of this blog with a good memory will recall this I picked this up at a bookshop around Crystal Palace/Gipsy Hill back in February after having walked some way to get there. During some of the summer following I continued to walk some of the South Downs Way and began on the North Downs Way. So I decided to read Solnit’s work, which I understood to be a collection of essays, on the subject of walking. Indeed, the book carries the subtitle ‘A History of Walking’. In a few other works I’ve picked up on the subject, Solnit is constantly referred to.

I must note that the editors put in a lovely touch. The book is printed in fairly small print, so the reader is forced to take their time, almost squinting at the page, in order to read. This slows the reader and evokes the slowing to a walking pace from the rush of everyday life. At the bottom of every page there is a quote in some way related to walking. But they are not restricted to a single page, some run over for a few pages, as they only include one per page, in what looks like an old fashioned share price ticker. So as you read the text, underneath it is a steady stream of words of beauty that evoke the feeling of walking by a river, with the words flowing like the water.

What of the content of the book?

Solnit’s work covers a huge range of subjects, which one might not expect for a book about walking, but it is a fascinating and enlightening work, written with prose of the highest calibre. She covers the romantic poets (in particular Wordsworth), the peripatetic philosophers, urbanisation, the flaneurs (check spelling) of Paris, walking as a leisure activity, as an act of protest (e.g. through Reclaim The Streets), an act of pilgrimage, as art and a whole host of other things. It is so wide-ranging, it’s quite staggering that one person could so confidently and adroitly write with such wit and grace on these, intertwined with her own reflections on some personal encounters while walking in the western United States.

This may all sound rather gushing, as though I had lost all my critical senses, but let me assure that such high praise is well deserved. From page to page, one has (in the proper sense of the word) an apocalypse, an unveiling of a world we may have been faintly aware was there, but which is revealed to us now in splendid glory. I thought I liked walking and am generally regarded as “a walker” but I can see that I have had such a narrow definition that it seems hardly anyone can be. My walking is restricted to a little urban travel when I have the time, some long distance paths in sunny weather and the occasional protest.

In reading through the book, there are some paths we wander down several times. The one most frequently trod is the one marked ‘social history’, but there are other than are near parallel such as ‘politics’ and ‘culture’, while at times we may go off in other directions entirely. Yet with this range of topics, there is a risk that the book could lack cohesion, but it doesn’t. It all hangs together as one. Given the small print, and the fact that it runs for some 300 pages, it’s not a thin book to read over the course of a weekend. It is a book to be savoured.

I probably ought to add that from the time I started to the time I finished, I covered about 55 miles (a little over half) of the North Downs Way. Since starting the book, I’ve taken to collecting a few more volumes of walking literature, as Wanderlust has given me a real taste for the genre. In particular, I look forward to The Old Ways and A Philosophy of Walking.

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