Travel literature review: Wanderlust

Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit 


Rating: 4 out of 5

Reviewed by Steve Waters

I’m fond of a good walk, particularly an extended one somewhere pristinely wet and remote like South West Tasmania. Jagged peaks, clothes-shredding scrub, thigh-deep bog and lonely west-coast sunsets are just some of the attractions. I do it because I enjoy the wilderness, the struggle, the solitude (well, most of the time). But why do I enjoy it?

Enter activist, writer and polymath Rebecca Solnit with Wanderlust, a collection of essays exploring the history of 'walking for leisure'. Philosophers, writers, artists, poets, adventurers, cranks and visionaries are Solnit’s companions on this TARDIS-esque voyage of ambulation across the centuries. Solnit draws heavily on literature as we move from Rousseau’s Paris and Kierkegaard’s Copenhagen through Wordsworth’s Lake District and Dickens’ London to arrive at Wojnarowicz’s New York.  Along the way we detour (let’s say 'wander') through social change, the history of formal gardens and mountaineering (thankfully not in the same chapter), the formation of wilderness conservation/appreciation societies like the Sierra Club and land battles that created entities like Britain’s Ramblers Association.

This is by no means a concise history of walking - the Eastern and Southern Hemispheres of the planet are mostly ignored - but rather a quirky, circumlocutory ramble that also traverses religious pilgrimages, sidles gay rights, assaults urban planning and scales the peak of gender inequality.

Academic in nature, Wanderlust is neither travel yarn nor memoir, though, refreshingly, the author also draws from her own experiences, in hometown San Francisco, the Mojave Desert, New Mexico and Las Vegas. This helps lighten the narrative, for there is much that is thought-provoking. Each paragraph contains so much information, so many ideas and conclusions, that I found myself rereading sentences several times to first understand the point, then secondly to decide whether I agreed or disagreed. Las Vegas as the future of walking? Of humanity? Not while there’s still an ounce of wilderness somewhere.

Solnit has achieved for walking what Sontag captured for photography decades earlier, but when it boils down to it, I know I’d rather be doing it, than reading about it.

Steve Waters works in LP’s Melbourne office when he’s not thigh-deep in Tasmanian bog. 

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