On the back cover, Will Self describes Wanderlust as ‘magisterial’. That’s exactly the right word. It’s an ambitious book, as its subtitle makes clear, aiming to give an entire history of walking. The indefinite article is important: this is very much a history of walking from one walker’s personal perspective.
The book mixes major walking-related topics with personal anecdotes, covering, among many other things: the evolution of walking; walking as a means to thinking; flâneurs; walking as protest; walking clubs; walking as physical challenge; walking in the wild; walking in the streets; and much more.
As in her other books, such as The Faraway Nearby and A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Solnit’s writing style is unpretentious, and highly readable. She manages to cover an awful lot of ground without making you feel rushed. She proceeds at a brisk pace, but still finds time to slow down occasionally to examine particular topics of interest in more detail.
Although Solnit is American, I was very pleased to see how much attention she gives to walking in non-American cultures—especially European ones. Rousseau, Wordsworth, Kierkegaard, Kinder Scout, Paris, Italy, you name it, they’re all in there. As a self-confessed Darwin groupie, I was disappointed to find no mention of Darwin’s famous Sand Walk in the section about great thinkers’ having walked to meditate. I was also surprised to see no mention of the Jarrow March in the section about walking as political protest. But these are not really criticisms: with such a broad subject, Wanderlust was never going to be the definitive book on walking. Nor is any other book, thank goodness. But Wanderlust deserves to be cited in all serious future books on the subject.
My one complaint about this book is that the text is far too small for someone with middle-aged eyes. When I first read it, I just about managed to cope. But when I came to re-read it several years later, I had to treat myself to the ebook version. Small text turns out to be a brilliant strategy on the part of the publisher: two sales to one customer!
That said, and excellent book.
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(Those of you with decrepit eyesight would do well to go for the ebook edition.)