Nearly 90 years ago, an Oxford scholar named Sherington took a dead, skinned cat, removed its brain, and found a way to make it walk. Fifty years later, English pediatrician Martin Bax was able to perform a similar feat with aborted human fetuses. “Walking,” concludes Geoff Nicholson in his new book, The Lost Art of Walking, “could be, quite literally, a brainless activity.”
And yet — as we see in Nicholson’s comprehensive historic, artistic, scientific, literary and spiritual study of walking — such a simple, apparently mindless, endeavor has provided creative fuel for some of the world’s greatest artists, thinkers and mystics, from Lao Tzu and Thomas Jefferson to Dickens and Rousseau.
And that’s just the first chapter.
Between tracing millennia of global walking history, Nicholson, an avid pedestrian if not a particularly compelling one, bravely devotes a chapter to walking in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, while he is an earnest advocate of L.A. walking culture, his shining moment of pedestrianism appears to be an awkward conversation he once had with actress Christina Ricci while she searched for her lost dog in the Hollywood Hills. Not exactly the stuff of inspiration.
Thankfully for his readers, early in the book, Nicholson describes the time he tripped and shattered his arm in three places — rendering himself unfit to stroll. Stuck indoors, he clearly was forced to hit the library, and his research and clever historical renderings of other people’s famous jaunts are where his work shines. Angelenos left wanting by Nicholson’s own walks in their city should find a suitable role model in the writer Aldous Huxley, who, when he lived in L.A. in his later years, used to take long, illicit strolls in the Hollywood Hills with his various mistresses — all prearranged by his wife.
Now that’s some artful walking.
THE LOST ART OF WALKING | By GEOFF NICHOLSON | Riverhead | 274 Pages | $25 hardcover