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'Wanderlust' examines walking and why we do it

By Michael Sims

JUNE 5, 2000:  I like to think that I delight in the humble details of everyday life. Yet, when I ran across Rebecca Solnit's new book Wanderlust A History of Walking, I realized that I had long been taking for granted a crucial part of my existence. I have always been a passionate walker. I remember particular walks with a fondness bordering on nostalgia.

Yet somehow I had never given much thought to the act of walking, or to its impressive place in history. However, as Solnit points out, "Everyone walks, a surprising number of people think about walking, and its history is spread across many scholars' fields...." She plays with this common metaphor and says that her book "trespasses through everybody else's field--through anatomy, anthropology, architecture, gardening, geography, political and cultural history, literature, sexuality, religious studies--and doesn't stop in any of them on its long route." Soon the reader realizes that thinking about walking resembles the act of walking. It is a joy because it is self-sufficient and easily crosses boundaries.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau summed up his own love of perambulation in the Confessions: "I can only meditate when I am walking. When I stop, I cease to think; my mind only works with my legs." For those of us born pedestrians who share Rousseau's sentiment, there is cause for celebration in Solnit's intelligent, witty, and literate book.

Wanderlust is clever in several ways. Solnit frames her story in walks she herself has taken--all over the world--but returns again and again to both famous and little known walks from history. Strolling across the bottom of the pages is a parade of quotations, in single file rather than bunched as footnotes, that demand that you turn back and dash ahead to follow the quotation to its end before you return to the main text. And, not surprisingly, the author's prose rambles a bit, occasionally darting up a side path, but always coming back to the main road.

What Solnit does is take readers on an informed, rambling tour through a subject that has captured her imagination. Out of her enthusiasm she has developed an expertise. This is the best kind of companionable nonfiction--a quirky, personal book by someone who loves both language and her topic. She writes with the knowledgeable candor of essayists such as Hazlitt and Lamb, or her contemporaries such as Vivian Gornick or Joseph Epstein. For, despite all the historical background, this book reads like an extended personal essay.

A few samples to give the flavor of Solnit's prose and way of thinking: "Like the stations of the cross, labyrinths and mazes offer up stories we can walk into to inhabit bodily, stories we trace with our feet as well as our eyes.... Walking came from Africa, from evolution, and from necessity, and it went everywhere, usually looking for something.... On ordinary days we each walk alone or with a companion or two on the sidewalks, and the streets are used for transit and for commerce. On extraordinary days--on the holidays that are anniversaries of historic and religious events and on the days we make history ourselves--we walk together, and the whole street is for stamping out the meaning of the day."

A splendid array of walkers accompany Solnit. There is a chapter devoted to Wordsworth's long trek across France and the Alps, which inspired his magnificent Prelude. You'll find Colin Fletcher, the Englishman whose treks in California became The Thousand Mile Summer, and who later wrote The Complete Walker. Twentieth-century mountaineer and poet Gary Snyder rubs shoulders with 17th-century Japanese poet and travel writer Matsuo Basho. From James Baldwin to Patti Smith, from the suicidal Sylvia Plath to the skeletal "Lucy," from prostitutes to Boy Scouts, this book is populated with more characters than most novels. Solnit explores medieval pilgrimages, recent marches on Washington, and strolls around the neighborhood after dinner.

Naturally the topic of walking leads in many directions. Solnit examines the shortcomings of modern urban design, and cities' attempts to steal the streets back from the automobile so that human beings may actually enjoy urban life again. She remarks perceptively on all sorts of topics, including the material aspect of the notion of pilgrimage, the curious preoccupation with the actual routes Buddha or Christ supposedly took and the relics archived along the way. She looks anew at Charles Dickens' role as poet of the streets, through which he created characters almost as distillations of their settings. Gilbert Chesterton, no mean walker and writer himself, said that what Dickens did could be done only by walking dreamily, not by walking observantly. Apparently, as any reader of Wanderlust will quickly observe, Solnit has read everything and thought hard about most of it.

Solnit also considers why so many thinkers and artists have been such passionate walkers. "It may be," she speculates, "that loyalty to something as immaterial as ideas sets thinkers apart from those whose loyalty to something is tied to people and locale, for the loyalty that ties down the latter will often drive the former from place to place." Her remark seems the kind of fuzzy conjecture that might wander through anyone's mind halfway through an entertaining walk. And Wanderlust is a very entertaining walk.

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