Wanderlust

Rebecca Solnit

I loved A Field Guide to Getting Lost, so it was only a matter of time before something else by Rebecca Solnit wound up on my hold list. This one is a pretty impressive history of walking, which has a rather left-leaning gait at times.

For whatever reason the second section, covering “From the Garden to the Wild” kept making me doze off on the train. Maybe I was just really tired or something, but those chapters all felt a little too academic and detailed, especially the entire chapter about William Wordsworth (who was an important walker no doubt), but so many quotes of his poetry? Were they really all necessary? I kept skipping around looking for something to latch onto before finally jumping ahead to the next section, “Lives of the Streets,” which looks at urban walking in cities after the Industrial Revolution. Maybe I can relate more to the story of De Quincey’s time wandering London where Solnit says at one part, “Streets were already a place for those who had no place, a site to measure sorrow and loneliness in the length of walks.

The kind of beautiful thing about this book is that it manages to be very broad in scope while keeping a steady pace (save, perhaps only for my taste, the section “From the Garden to the Wild”) — if I tried to touch on everything this book covers, it would turn into a big boring list. It’s the sort of book you can only really get by reading it.

There is a subtle state most dedicated urban walkers know, a sort of basking in solitude — a dark solitude punctuated with encounters as the night sky is punctuated with stars. In the country one’s solitude is geographical — one is altogether outside society, so solitude has a sensible geographical explanation, and then there is a kind of communion with the nonhuman. In the city, one is alone because the world is made up of strangers, and to be a stranger surrounded by strangers, to walk along silently bearing one’s secrets and imagining those of the people one passes, is among the starkest of luxuries. This unchartered identity with its illimitable possibilities is one of the distinctive qualities of urban living, a liberatory state for those who come to emancipate themselves from family and community expectation, to experiment with subculture and identity. It is an observer’s state, cool, withdrawn, with senses sharpened, a good state for anybody who needs to reflect or create. In small doses melancholy, alienation, and introspection are among life’s most refined pleasures.