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Book Review: Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit

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The subtitle of this book is "A History of Walking," and that's where my biggest gripe comes with Ms. Solnit. If we, the readers, hold too tightly to that appellation, the book becomes something of a failure. On the other hand, if we consider what we have here as more of a musing or, dare I say, a ramble, then the net result becomes a bit more satisfying.

This book is proof positive that titles must be handled with care, especially subtitles. As a rule, I'm not a fan of the subtitle. More often than not, they dilute the mystique of a really good title, altering and sometimes misleading expectations. Wanderlust is a strong title. The word is solid and forceful, but with a slightly wistful air to it. It stirs up feelings of curiosity and adventure, with a little bit of trouble as well. But then to call it a history does something to dampen that effect. It also suggests an organization and tone which simply aren't present in the work. Solnit certainly discusses walking within a historical context, but the book's purpose is not to trace the origins and purposes of walking in a linear or organized way. Likewise, there is a noticeable lack of objectivity I generally associate with "history" books.

Many of the seventeen chapters begin with a first person account which I found jarring, given my expectations. Solnit describes one of her walks in and around San Francisco, along with other spots, before transitioning into a broader discussion of a walking-related topic. It seems like the intent was to mix a memoir-style voice with an academic discussion, but I don't think it came off. The two narrative styles are interesting in their own rights, but the combined effect is pedestrian (if you'll pardon the pun). Additionally, the more firsthand experience Solnit has with a certain type of walking, the less restrained her voice becomes. The third section of the book (chapters 11-14), "Lives of the Streets," is awash in personal bias. The value Solnit places on protest and city walking far outweighs her coverage of other forms, and her chapter on women and walking is laced with a feminist tone entirely incongruous with the rest of the book. That the author's political and social views should become so apparent so late in the narrative led me to wonder if these chapters were written first, or perhaps were even the original impetus for the book.

Once I was able to put aside these objections and figure out just what sort of book I was reading, I was better able to enjoy the thoughtfulness inherent in many of the chapters. A lot of the time, Solnit's train of thought mimics its topic. The discussions are not always linear, but in a book on walking, that seems somewhat appropriate as long as the narrative remains controlled (which is the case here, broadly speaking). In particular, I found the discussion of pilgrimages intriguing. The author's description of her journey with the New Mexico crowds on their annual way to Chimayo was both moving and a wonderful frame for the chapter.

Another strength, at least to my sensibilities, is that many of the signposts Solnit uses in tracing walking's evolution are literary ones. She commits serious blocks of text to the influences of William Wordsworth, Rousseau, Kierkegaard, and Jane Austen. There are also more passing references to people like Thomas Gray, Dante, Allen Ginsberg, Thomas Hardy, George Orwell, John Muir, and many others. Likewise, extensive consideration is given to historical figures who have put walking to a more social purpose, people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. While I may have some issues with the author's style, there is no disputing the weight these names carry. In considering their various involvement with walking, Solnit often presents her readers the opportunity to consider these famous figures in a new light.

Given how ubiquitous walking is to human existence, to say nothing of current social and health trends, I'm surprised there hasn't been a really thorough study of walking. It was Solnit's stated purpose to produce such a work by writing Wanderlust, but I think it succeeds more from a philosophical standpoint than from a scientific or historical one. The book is thoughtful and wide-ranging, certainly, but would have done better to also be more analytical and logical.

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