Wanderlust: A History of Walking

What I’m Reading – Wanderlust: a History of Walking, by Rebecca Solnit

The word “pedestrian,” when used as an adjective rather than as a noun, denotes the mundane, the overly simplistic, the ordinary, and, at least in today’s highly mechanized world, the outdated. I’ve certainly heard drivers hurl epithets at walkers that suggest that that to be (a) pedestrian is a reprehensible offense. And even though we all do it every day, the fast-moving pace of contemporary society makes it easy to feel like walking has been (or soon will be) left behind.

…and yet, thanks to the energy crisis and the growing pressure to be green, walking and other forms of self-locomotion are making a comeback. Wanderlust: a History of Walking, by Rebecca Solnit, makes it clear that walking, however pedestrian the activity may, by nature, be, has a history that is far from simple, boring, or easy to leave behind.

Cover of Wanderlust, by Rebecca Solnit.

I love books like this—cross-disciplinary studies that approach a single subject through a variety of angles and perspectives—because they open up so many new avenues of inquiry. They lead you to new interests, new authors, new ideas, and new areas of exploration. On the first page, I learned a new word (one I probably should have known before)—peripatetic, meaning one who walks from place to place, originating from the Peripatetics, or the students of Aristotle, who famously (though not famously enough for me to know about it before reading this book) paced back and forth while teaching his followers—and through the first few chapters I’ve learned a lot I didn’t know about Kierkegaard, about religious pilgrimages in the American southwest and around the world, and about competing theories on the evolution of the upright hominid.

Wanderlust ambles through subjects as diverse as literature, philosophy, politics, religion, and strays through time periods from the ancient to the contemporary. Like a good walk, this book moves at its own pace, rather than sticking too aggressively to a rigidly defined central argument or determinedly hurrying toward a destination set in stone before departure. Instead, Solnit   pauses where she wants to, and shifts her focus from subject to subject in a way that is neither overly regimented nor frustratingly random.

Of course, she has an easy audience in me, because I love to walk. When I’m frustrated, upset or confused, I like to literally get lost, I like to walk until my legs ache and I’m far enough removed from whatever it is that’s bothering me that the world seems, for a little while, to be a different place. And I love to read about things I love to do—I’m far too easily pleased to be a proper critic. So if you’re made of the same pedestrian-loving element, I’d definitely pick up a copy of Wanderlust and amble through it at whatever pace you please.

If you like Wanderlust: a History of Walking*: then you should try Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, or Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. Parts of the book also reminded me of Susie Orbach’s Bodies.

Wanderlust: a History of Walking, by Rebecca Solnit, was published by Penguin Books in 2001. I bought my paperback copy at a local bookstore for $16.00. Get it for less at Amazon or Half.com or for free at a library near you.

* When I told a friend of mine this past summer that I was going to start a blog about reading, she told me that’d what she’d really like for me to write was recommendations of the “if you really liked this book, then you should try this one” variety. So I’ve added the “If you like this:” section in Tocchi’s honor. Blame her if you hate my suggestions, praise me if you like them.


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