Expansive and engaging, Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust explores the history of walking in the West.
First published in 2001, the book is writer and activist Rebecca Solnit’s fourth. Solnit takes as her central subject walking, “the most obvious and the most obscure thing in the world,” but the scope of her seventeen-chapter book is wide ranging. Religion, environmentalism, urban policy, philosophy, and politics are just a few of the many topics she explores. Against the backdrop of the disappearance of public space in the West, Wanderlust tracks the rise and fall of what Solnit calls the Golden Age of Walking.
At its core the book is an engaging work of cultural history, with a compelling thesis. Starting with Rousseau and the Romantics, Solnit contends, walking became a conscious cultural act, whereas in the past it had only been a means to an end. In the late eighteenth century a culture of walking sprouted as a reaction “against the speed and alienation of the industrial revolution.”
The act of walking started to accrue dynamic, democratic, and subversive cultural meanings it had never before held in Western societies. Workers flocked to the countryside on their days off to escape the horrors of the industrial city, while city dwellers started to take to the streets and march in protest of injustice. As cities became safer, people increasingly sought out society, adventure, and reflection in urban public space. Walking, hiking, and mountaineering clubs framed the wilderness as something to be explored, preserved, and shared.
Divided into four parts, the book is organized thematically. The first section, “The Pace of Thoughts,” is an eclectic mix of walking-inspired essays: one examines the meanings of modern pilgrimages, another evaluates scientific theories about bipedalism. The next two parts, “From the Garden to the Wild” and “Lives of the Streets,” chart the history of rural and urban walking. The last, “Past the End of the Road,” critiques suburbanization as well as the reduction of public space in cities, both of which have led to the decline of walking and the fragmentation of political and social life.
All the while the author surveys the literature of walking. Solnit juxtaposes elite and popular texts across chapters, analyzing how each discusses the act of walking, and her commentary is consistently incisive and sharp. She also considers how social identity impacts the experience of walking in all the essays, letters, diary entries, novels, and poems she quotes. In one of the book’s strongest chapters, “Walking After Midnight,” Solnit methodically demonstrates that restrictions on women’s walking are inextricably tied to the desire to regulate their political activity and sexuality.
The structure of each chapter is associative. Solnit wanders from point to point, text to text, seemingly without much concern for cohesion, but she always manages to bring everything together near the chapter’s conclusion. Following her train of thought sometimes can be difficult, but always is rewarding.
The author’s prose is lyrical, as always. Solnit writes so well, and has a gift for the memorable turn of phrase and the pithy aphorism. In spite of how information dense each essay is, the writing never feels inaccessible or dry, and the bottom of each page features a quote from a famous artist or activist on walking.
Readers looking for a highly readable mix of memoir and cultural history might be a bit disappointed. Unlike The Faraway Nearby or A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Solnit rarely discusses her own life in Wanderlust, and the few times she incorporates personal history, she does so in a detached and distant way. The contrast between this and the author’s more recent pop-political work is astounding, and testifies to her versatile range as a writer.
Broad in scope and full of insight, Wanderlust offers a well-rounded history of walking as a conscious cultural act in the West. While the book won’t appeal to everyone, it’s nearly flawless, and Solnit builds a fascinating case for viewing walking and public space as vital to the health of democracy.