I got this book from my mum for Christmas I think, or my birthday. In Polish edition, it has a beautiful cover, so I was tempted to read it, but at the same time deterred by its size. Finally roaming my shelves during lockdown in April I got to it. It is an odd choice of topic for when one it locked at home, and cannot go for a walk. Or maybe not, maybe subconsciously I wanted to compensate. Either way, I read it, and enjoyed it, even though it was not what I was expecting. It is very different from other books by Solnit I read (The Mother of All Questions, Call Them by Their True Names, Men Explain Things to Me)
In essence, I shouldn’t be surprised, because it is a history of walking, just as it says in the title. Looked at from various angles and aspects. But before I get to this I must say I remain baffled that the English language has no word for Wanderlust and has to resort to German. In Polish, the title is a two-word phrase, but one that is the cultural equivalent of Wanderlust.
Solnit starts with the spiritual meaning of walking. She will follow a pattern through the chapters, relating each of them to her travels and her own experience f walking as she worked on the text. After she kicked off on the high note, she comes back to earth, literally. Discussing the history of humans as bipeds, she dissects various theories of what made us get up from all fours. It is an interesting choice, given that it made us slower, less balanced, and more vulnerable. We had to compensate with intelligence for those drawbacks, or maybe it was the growing human brain that made it possible for us to stand up straight?
We then go back to the higher ground, looking at the philosophy of walking and history of walking in the philosophy. Our key companions here are Jean-Jaques Rousseau and Søren Kierkegaard. Both avid walkers. It also feels as if Solnit is disappointed with postmodernism. She had faith it would tackle the subject of walking, with all its interest in the movement and the body. But it had made the body a purely theoretical construct, separating it from the physical.
Let me speed up so I don’t refer the whole book to you. In further chapters, Solnit talks about pilgrimages, marches, parades, and processions, and the various purposes of walking together. She tackles the ‘imaginary’ walking, the palace of memory, as a technique of walking through one’s memories, as well as the affinity between walking and narration. Quite large part of the book focuses on the history of walking for pleasure. How it all started with the gardens. And then from Baroque fenced and very organized gardens, evolved into landscaped gardens (welcome Capability Brown), with ha-ha walls (it’s a thing!). From there just one step to the actual roaming in nature and Romantic awe for its power.
She also tackles mountain walking and climbing and the inherent difference between them. We then get to walk through the cities, this is when the affiliations with the topics handled more in-depth in the Happy City are very close. One thing she covers that Montgomery didn’t is the relation of the city space to the city’s potential for revolutions. As it is a book by Rebecca Solnit she does get into the feminist aspect of walking too, actually this was what I was expecting from the beginning hence my surprise about the book.
When she moves on to walking as the art we get a glimpse of The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō by Hiroshige. Incidentally, in he same week as I read the book I wrote an article for the Daily Art Magazine, in which I mentioned Hiroshige as well. It seems in the end of April the synchronicity was everywhere for me. Themes, books, authors, art interweaving and coming together almost in patterns. Another example: Solnit also mentions Marina Abramović and Ulay’s walk on the Great Wall of China, in the same week I was reading it Guardian run a great text about that performance.
Of course I don’t believe this is something special. I just think it comes from me paying much more attention to things when I’m in lockdown. The life has shrunk, so we watch it more closely. And then those things are bound to happen.
Back to the book though. Surprised as I was about it I enjoyed it. However it needs to be read at moderate pace, a walking pace really. It cannot be rushed too much. Walking is an art and it does help us think and digest our emotions. The way we walk makes us special and we should remember that. Especially after the lockdown ,when we’re allowed more than one hour a day outside.