Five Best Books on Walking

From a Wall Street Journal story headlined “Five Best Books on Walking”:

Selected by David Guterson, the author of Snow Falling on Cedars and, most recently, The Final Case.

By Rebecca Solnit (2000)

1. In her acknowledgments for “Wanderlust,” Rebecca Solnit points out that “walking has a multitude of amateurs.” She isn’t one of them, as her book attests. While its subtitle describes it as a history of walking, “Wanderlust” is interested in far more than that. One of its subjects is “the pace of thoughts,” or the intimate relationship between thinking and walking; as it turns out, a host of deep cogitators and philosophers—Bentham, Hegel, Kant, Kierkegaard, Mill, Wittgenstein—walked habitually as a spur to their work.

The same has been true, we learn, of a multitude of poets who versified afoot, Wordsworth, perhaps, most famously among them. Ms. Solnit sheds light, too, on less rarefied walking—on urban strolls, political marches, garden excursions, romantic rambles, pilgrimages, promenades and aerobic constitutionals. Her book never flags in its zeal for its subject, or in its presentation of original ideas, which is much to its credit, given that walking is as easy to overlook as, say, breathing.

Walking Home
By Simon Armitage (2013)

2. Among the many entries in the journey-on-foot genre, “Walking Home” stands out for its humor and novelty. Simon Armitage, the United Kingdom’s current poet laureate, walks the Pennine Way from Kirk Yetholm in Scotland to Edale, England—more than 260 miles of fells and moorlands—and nightly seeks to fund his trip by giving poetry readings in pubs, halls, hotels and village theaters. His sojourn soon achieves the ambience of the absurd as he counts his farthings and wears himself out, but its cadences are beautifully wrought in sentences that feel like their own destinations.

You can read Mr. Armitage without having to get anywhere, all the while disarmed by his persistent self-effacement. He does, however, get somewhere, while walking in territory he’s never left. (Mr. Armitage is a lifelong resident of Yorkshire and lives within walking distance of the place of his birth.) “I wanted to write a book about the North,” he tells us, “one that could encompass elements of memoir as well as saying something about my life as a poet.” In doing all of that—and in walking, too—Mr. Armitage proceeds with wit and grace.

The Rings of Saturn
By W.G. Sebald (1995)

3. W.G. Sebald’s genius has arrived at the stage where it’s widely accepted as fact. “The Rings of Saturn” isn’t the best known of his books, but like the others it seems impossibly sublime. In its pages Sebald—or someone else—makes a tour on foot through the southeast of England in the hope of dispelling an emptiness he feels, only to find himself confronted by more of it in the form of remote places succumbing to decay. Wherever he goes, he finds fodder for digressions devoted to parsing the passage of time or to limning the tragedy of mortality and dissolution.

Readers may feel brought low by all this, but more likely they’ll be stirred by Sebald’s depth and range as the terrain occasions in him prolonged ruminations on everything from silk moths and the decline of the herring fishery to the English author Thomas Browne and China’s Empress Dowager Cixi. For Sebald, the conventions of travelogue are cursory at best, or a frame from which to hang his formidable abundance. This book has an itinerary all its own.

The Old Ways
 By Robert Macfarlane (2012)

4. “The Old Ways” is the final entry in a trilogy about “landscape and the human heart.” Its predecessors, “Mountains of the Mind” (2003) and “The Wild Places” (2007), are moving and polymathic treatises in which walking makes an inevitable appearance, but here, in “The Old Ways,” it’s situated prominently and contemplated extensively. This is a book about “walking as a reconnoitre inwards, and the subtle ways in which we are shaped by the landscapes through which we move.”

Loosely structured as a series of first-person travelogues—accounts of walking in, among other places, Palestine, Spain, the Himalayas and the Scottish northwest—“The Old Ways” bears down on the tracks we make, literally: on the pilgrim paths, drove roads, ghost roads and holloways that network the earth and even haunt it. Mr. Macfarlane is elegant as a prose stylist and rough when it comes to his proclivities as a walker, a Cambridge fellow and English professor who, after covering 30 miles on foot, lies down for the night in a patch of thistly grass. His books, while cerebral, remain tethered to earth.

Narrow Road to the Interior
By Matsuo Bashō (Translated by Sam Hamill, 1998)

5. There are multiple English translations of this book, but I like Sam Hamill’s for its contextual introduction, its inclusion of other writings (“Travelogue of Weather-Beaten Bones,” “The Knapsack Notebook,” “Sarashina Travelogue” and selected haiku), its engaging afterword, and its faithful simplicity. Matsuo Bashō, a much-celebrated Japanese master of haibun, a literary form merging prose and haiku, sets out in the spring of 1689 to walk extensively on his home island of Honshu, having “been drawn by windblown clouds into dreams of a lifetime of wandering.”

A reader might begin “Narrow Road to the Interior” with a wariness of Zen crypticism, but before long it becomes clear that Bashō’s approach is to strip away the dense veneer of words always threatening to stand between us and experience. Haibun turns out to be perfect for this, weaving together, as it does, spare prose travelogue with even more spare haiku. “The horse turns his head— / from across the wide plain, / a cuckoo’s cry,” is followed by “Sessho-seki lies in dark mountain shadow near a hot springs emitting bad gases. Dead bees and butterflies cover the sand.” As Hamill reminds us, “each poem is the only poem. Each moment is the only moment in which one can be fully aware.”


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