Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Made For Walking

By Ray Pride

JULY 3, 2000: 

Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit (Viking), $24.95, 336 pages

I'm gonna walk this off, someone says. I'm going to get some air and figure this out.

Thinkers, writers, strategists, angry lovers: all have known the need for the cardiovascular zoning-out that a good, brisk walk accommodates. Until Rebecca Solnit's jam-packed bipedal travelogue, "Wanderlust," no one had bothered to cast a consideration of mortal experience through the medium of humankind's perambulations. In earlier volumes, like "A Book of Migrations," Solnit demonstrated a marvelous, wide-ranging curiosity, and "Wanderlust" is the most jam-packed, most anecdotally dense of them all. In what constitutes a feat of uncommon literary analysis, she has also compiled a commonplace book of notions and epigrams about the seemingly ordinary act of walking. She manages to meander through dozens of observations, sneakily linking philosophy, literature and even the woolly-headed revolutionary notions of the French Situationists.

Solnit is particularly taken with writers who have considered the promenade of Parisian streets to be something elevated and profound: "Such a density of literature had accumulated in Paris," she writes, "that one pictures characters from centuries of literature crossing paths constantly, crowding each other, a Metro car full of heroines, a promenade populated by the protagonists of novels, a rioting mob of minor characters." A line runs along the bottom of each page, a stream of words comprised of literary quotations about walking. They're picturesque and often brilliant, yet Solnit's own words struggle to walk it through, down to elemental physiology: "Walking shares with making and working that crucial element of engagement of the body and the mind of the world, of knowing the world through the body and the body through the world."

Solnit's story is wry and seductive, threading in Virginia Woolf, poets Allen Ginsberg and Frank O'Hara in Manhattan, the near-comic struggles to think through problems on foot as performed by Kierkegard and Rousseau. She worries for the future of walking, from the threat of suburbs, cars, workout gear. "The treadmill," she rues, "is a corollary to the suburb and the autotropolis: a device with which to go nowhere in places where there is now nowhere to go." Yet this cultivated, reflective writer is hopeful: "Walking has been one of the constellations of the starry sky of human culture, a constellation where three stars are the body, the imagination and the wide-open world... This constellation called walking has a history, a history trod out by all those poets and philosophers and insurrectionaries, by jaywalkers, streetwalkers, pilgrims, tourists... but whether it has a future, depends on whether those connecting paths are traveled still." Deep breaths, one foot in front of the other and no fixed destination: It's a start.

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