on wanderlust

Expansive and engaging, Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust explores the history of walking in the West.

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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.

10 thoughts on “on wanderlust

  1. Wonderful review! I’ve really liked what I’ve read of her journalism but wasn’t crazy about the one book of hers I’ve read, Men Explain Things to Me (aside from the title essay.) But this sounds nothing like what I imagined and very wide-ranging. I’m curious enough to look for it, thanks for such a thorough and insightful review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I can understand where you’re coming from about Men Explain Things to Me. The first time I read her longer work, I was surprised by how insightful and detailed it was in comparison. A lot of the pieces in METtM almost felt like notes toward longer pieces or things she knew would sell well but weren’t especially complex.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s such a good way to put it, they didn’t feel particularly complex or in-depth, except in certain places where some topics felt overly picked apart yet without useful insight. I just figured she wasn’t quite for me until I read her piece “Death by Gentrification” in the collection Tales of Two Americas. It was amazing, and felt like an entirely different writer. Will have to give her another shot!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. “Overly picked apart yet without useful insight” – nicely phrased! I’m reading The Faraway Nearby right now, which I’m mostly enjoying, though there are a few parts where it feels like she’s overanalyzing something without developing or nuancing her overall argument.

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  2. I didn’t become aware of Solnit until she published Men Explain Things to Me and I hadn’t heard of this book. It sounds good though! I’ll probably try to get to her more recent works first, but I think I’d enjoy this one as well.

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