BOOK REVIEW | Wanderlust: A History of Walking

WanderlustREVIEW | Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Soinit
Review by Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A
(Originally posted June 21, 2015; updated, May 27, 2017)

(Book blurb begins) Drawing together many histories – of anatomical evolution and city design, of treadmills and labyrinths, of walking clubs and sexual mores – Rebecca Solnit creates a fascinating portrait of the range of possibilities presented by walking. Arguing that the history of walking includes walking for pleasure as well as for political, aesthetic, and social meaning, Solnit focuses on the walkers whose everyday and extreme acts have shaped our culture, from philosophers to poets to mountaineers. She profiles some of the most significant walkers in history and fiction – from Wordsworth to Gary Snyder, from Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet to Andre Breton’s Nadja – finding a profound relationship between walking and thinking and walking and culture. Solnit argues for the necessity of preserving the time and space in which to walk in our ever more car-dependent and accelerated world. (Book blurb ends)

Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Soinit, I was really excited to read it. While Soinit certainly deserves some credit for daring to tackle a subject that is a fundamental reality of human existence while also being extremely difficult to discuss, the result is profoundly disappointing. Simply put, this is a very uneven book with not enough high points (e.g. socio-cultural implications of automobile-dependent suburban sprawl in America, walking as described in 18th and 19th European literature, concepts of artists incorporating walking into their contemporary work) to compensate for its many low points. These include an almost verbatim regurgitation of common misconceptions about walking and associated (often tangential) subjects, a brief swim in the treacherous waters of ‘rape culture’ with its troubling connotations of Orwellian thought crime, and even outright historical revisions. It is a type of historical revisionism (or post-rationalization by way of apologia) that occurs all too often in popular culture today, preying on historical ignorance of the reader in the hopes that if a lie is told frequently enough it will eventually become the truth. Herein lies the fatal flaw of this book. Soinit chooses to focus her history of walking on extraordinary events rather than ordinary, everyday occurrences (and their observation): this where the real richness about walking as a subject truly lies. It is unfortunate because, while Soinit’s focus is not always objective, she does, on occasion, provide keen observations about some subjects (a brief section on gyms near the end of the book is particularly interesting).

This unevenness makes Wanderlust: A History of Walking a real endurance test for the reader. There are some gems buried within the text but it is hard work ‘walking’ along the path to find them. It will try and defeat most readers’ patience. I endured the book but I am unsure it was really worth the effort. Mark’s Grade:


Wanderlust: A History of Walking
by Rebecca Soinit

Paperback, English, 336 pages
Penguin Books, 2001
ISBN-10: 0140286012
ISBN-13: 978-0140286014

Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Soinit is available for purchase from Amazon here.

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