Once upon a time, long ago, I decided to become a slow reader, instead of the gulper I'd always been, at least for some books. The hard ones, like Damasio and Ulysses and Proust and Stephen Jay Gould's account of the mysteries of the Burgess shale. I had the leisure. After all, I'd just retired and my time was mine to do as I wanted. No more leaping out of bed and heading off, sometimes 200 kilometres to a strange school where I was The Consultant. Slowly the slow read faded, and other enthusiasms took its place.
However, since my novel reading frenzy has slipped away as I criss-cross the world, I've returned to the habit with some pleasure and almost by accident. I picked up Wanderlust: a history of walking by Rebecca Solnit just before I flew to Warsaw, and the irony of reading a book about walking on a long-haul flight amused me. It was perfectly suited to the desultory kind of reading you do at airports and in flight: plenty of anecdotes, lovely turns of phrase and ideas that provoked thought. I could dip into it, read a few paragraphs, and stare into space thinking about what I read. It didn't offer a continuous argument that needed to be followed minutely.
My copy is dotted with small yellow diamonds in the margins, a way of noting without making notes. To write this, I am leafing though these yellow indicators to prompt a recalcitrant memory.
So what were the precise pleasures of this read? Social history. Literature. Diversity of walkers. An articulation of the pleasures of walking. A thesaurus of walking words.
Solnit reflected and inspired what I was doing or could do in my city, Warsaw: “reviews of my own and the city's history” perfectly fitted my rambles between tram stops and the overlaying of new experiences on my old experiences of Warsaw, of walking the Nerrigundah road and of surveying the Eurobodalla beaches. The eye as you walk settles on “small things, small epiphanies”: and you “celebrate the incidental and the inconsequential”. As Warsaw becomes increasingly familiar, my eye is free to do just that: to notice graffiti, and advertisements, and droppings from dog and tree on the footpath, and roadside flowers, and reflections in puddles and men at work. No longer do I have to focus on the practicalities. When she said “cities are forever spawning lists”, I was liberated into my native habitat of list-making as I walked or rode the trams.
One thing that appealed to me at first, and later drove me nuts, was a ribbon of quotations running along the bottom of the page, sometimes over a number of pages so you were flicking forward to finish the quote, and backwards to continue the book.
I enjoyed the chapters about literature: Elizabeth Bennett doubly breaking social protocol by walking, alone, to the neighbour's to visit her sister; William and Dorothy Wordsworth walking solid miles without a second thought; the flaneurs (I've always had a liking for that word) in the streets of Paris; the long string of philosophers and writers who were also walkers (Mill, Bentham, Kant, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Hobbes – who carried an inkwell in a walking stick ready to jot down ideas – Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Thoreau, Whitman, Lesley Stephen, de Quincey, Coleridge, Robert Louis Stevenson).
There were a few inspirational women striding the pages: notably Peace Pilgrim who walked the world for twenty-eight years, having vowed “to remain a wanderer until mankind has learned the way of peace”; and the Argentinian Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who walked around the obelisk in the centre of the plaza every Friday in silent protest against the disappearings.
The most horrifying chapter was the one called “Walking after midnight: women, sex and public space.” Nighttime walking has often been regarded with suspicion: if you walk at night you're up to no good, and if you were a nineteenth century woman you were made to pay by submitting to a medical examination to prove you were “a good girl”.
J insists that I add a warning so you don't rush off on my say-so and invest in a read that doesn't pay the dividends I promise. He wasn't charmed by Solnit (Germaine Greer in “White beech” is his current gold standard for charm) but there were chapters so full of interesting facts and theories that he kept reading.
As a lovely addendum to thinking about walking, please read Elissaveta's post, 'There are places only our feet can conquer.'