A History of Walking
by Rebecca Solnit
Reviewed by Steve Plocher
If you’re like me, you don’t find books or decide to read them: you stumble upon them. Even if you’ve been looking for a particular novel, when you finally get to reading, it’s by chance: stumbling upon it in the bookstore. Interesting passages in textbooks are stumbled upon as well. When I stumbled upon Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking, I was met with a book made for us stumblers: it is a meandering book. The reading experience is like a walk through the book’s diverse territory, and we read it not as wide-eyed hikers but by moseying at a steady pace. Solnit investigates the broad history of walking in many ways, progressing from philosophy to evolution to politics, each chapter a gentle but interesting foray into the history of one of the most basic human behaviors, in a book to which one can turn repeatedly to set out on new adventures.
The first section of the book, titled “The Pace of Our Thoughts,” begins to explore the multifaceted experience of walking—the physiological evolution of walking and several of its implications, the religious experience of pilgrimage, the philosophical experiences of walking in order to think, the movements involved in walking, and the nature of stories that are tied to walking. The exploration, which traces references to walking by Jean-Jacques Rousseau but cites art and architecture to speculate about its earlier significance, is interspersed with tales of the author’s meandering experience, her interactions with experts as she researched, and her walks with friends in the desert of the southwestern United States.
Throughout Wanderlust, Solnit looks deeply into many of the ways in which walking has embedded itself in culture. Scattered among the bigger discussions are insights about walking’s influence on figurative expressions, on rhythm in poetry, and on how space and time are conceived. Her book presents walking as a force and theme that permeates human history.
Solnit focuses on the role of walking for pleasure, outlining it origins as a phenomenon to romanticism. In the second section of the book, “From the Garden to the Wild,” she explores the literature surrounding this form of walking, from William Wordsworth’s hikes and Jane Austen’s gardens to the wilderness essays of the transcendentalists. In the twentieth century, the tradition evolved into tales of exceedingly long walks, notably thousand-mile treks by John Muir and others. Solnit relates her findings with a gentle tone, adding to the sense of a calm walk, and her history is laced with light humor. For example, she laments of the long trekkers: “Alas, many of these long-distance writers are not fascinating thinkers, and it’s a dubious premise that someone who would be dull to walk round the corner with must be fascinating for a six-month trek” (127).
Wanderlust covers such vast ground that there is literally something for everyone from all walks of life; virtually all fields of interest and eras of history are represented. She discusses mountaineering and its evolution, poetry and its reaction to walking, the emergence of walking organizations such as the Sierra Club, and issues of land use and property rights in the United States and Britain. In the third section of the book, “Lives of the Streets,” she moves to urban forms of walking, discussing urban planning, the role of streets for parades and protests, and people’s ability to walk safely.
The book also offers continual distraction: along the footer of each page is an alternate route to follow, a trail of short excerpts from literature throughout the ages, offering snapshots of walks and related thoughts.
Not far below the surface, throughout the book, Solnit puts forth her argument about the importance of walking as a time to think, a time that increasingly is disappearing. The final section, “Past the End of the Road,” covers the development of suburbs and a car-based American society, which she finds harmful to personal thought and community. In a world where walking is often carried out on treadmills, Solnit offers Wanderlust as a presentation of the rich history of a simple activity and as an effort to nudge American society back into the health that walking, in all its true forms, encourages. In this effort, Solnit manages to be thorough without being overwhelming. Her convincing and educational writing allows for being picked up and set down, making for a book that encourages division into multiple expeditions into it and blessedly lets one pause from reading to get up and walk somewhere.
Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking, New York: Penguin, 2001. ISBN 9780140286014. $16.00.