Rebecca Solnit‘s Wanderlust: A History of Walking belongs to a genre of literature that in the late 20th century moved from the rarefied confines of Ph.D. theses into the land of almost-marketable books: the small-topic, big-concept cultural study. In it, the author, usually a scholar of literature, a social historian or cultural anthropologist, takes a mundane idea –such as boredom (Adam Phillips’ On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored), dust (Joseph A. Amato‘s Dust: A History of the Small and Invisible) or defecation (Dominique Laporte’s History of Shit) — and uses it to chart the whole of Western culture, from Neanderthal man to the present. Almost always, these books critique class politics, expose propaganda and evoke a dystopian sense of nostalgia: life, as we all know, was healthier, more wholesome and purer before the Industrial Revolution, television and the Internet.
A rigorous polymath capable of stunning flashes of original thought, Solnit has always been a wanderer: This book was hatched at the same Nevada protest site that inspired Savage Dreams, her 1994 extended riff on life out West. Wanderlust is something of a career culmination for her, unifying everything she‘s done and knows. Under “walking,” she manages to fit language, culture, history, biology, anthropology and politics; Dickens, Rousseau, Kerouac, Woolf, Thoreau, Jane Austen, Sylvia Plath and Guy De Bord; women’s suffrage, environmentalism, aerobics and ethnocentric etymology. That the book nevertheless flows like a good novel is a testament to her skill: Solnit writes precise, elegant prose, and interprets her subject with imagination. Although in the first chapter she concerns herself with how we came to be bipeds in the first place, by the middle, walking has come to mean so much more than putting one foot in front of the other. In Paris, it is a language; in the 19th century, it was a leisure activity of the upper classes; in political movements, its more strident form — marching — is an act of protest.
In the 21st century, walking as a leisure activity barely survives, except on the indoor-gym treadmill — a condition Solnit laments as a symptom of our general cultural decline: “An indicator species signifies the health of an ecosystem, and its endangerment or diminishment can be an early warning sign of systemic trouble. Walking is an indicator species of various kinds of freedoms and pleasures: free time, free and alluring space, and unhindered bodies.”
Perhaps. Then again, perhaps not. Like Mike Davis, who appears to rank high among her intellectual influences, Solnit makes far-flung associations and bold statements not to dictate the truth but to provoke argument. While the connections she makes often seem reckless, when they work they are more thrilling for the risk. The subject of Wanderlust may be mundane, but what Solnit draws from it is fascinating.