This book was a meandering but accessible description of why, culturally, we walk and how this has changed over the course of history. Everybody walks (well, almost), so the culture of walking is relevant to almost every field of study and every person. Walking, as Solnit says, is “an amateur act,” and it may be because of this that it is not examined as often as it could be. This book seamlessly combines Solnit’s personal experiences, science, and cultural analysis to examine how walking as a human activity has evolved. From Greek philosophers to ridiculous theories of bipedalism that postulate that it evolved in order to display the penis as a “threat display organ,” it covers a lot of ground from a lot of angles. It encompasses such diverse phenomena as pilgrimages, walk-a-thons, flaneurs, mountaineering, and English gardens. Notable (to me at least) is the almost complete absence of any discussion about thru-hiking and its culture, though it does mention the evolution of hiking as a pastime and Peace Pilgrim, who hiked the AT. Solnit mentions the trend, especially in America, of public spaces designed for cars endangering walkability in many cities. “When public space disappears, so does the body as… adequate for getting around.”
A book entirely about urban walkability, this treatise beats into your head the thousand different ways walking improves the economic, physical, and psychological well-being of a town. Though somewhat dry and repetitive at times (yes, I understand that parking requirements are bad), it is very factual and well-researched. The facts behind proper urban planning are so counter-intuitive, books like this are crucial to prevent politicians from making backwards decisions to earn the vote of an uninformed public. Most normal methods of improving life for drivers, Speck tells us– such as widening roads, building more highways, and free parking– actually not only decrease walkability but also make traffic worse. If everyone were to read only one book about urban planning (which, honestly, is already being optimistic), it should be this one.
On the other end of the spectrum, Herzog’s book details an entirely impractical walk in the middle of winter from Munich to Paris. He believed walking to see his friend, Lotte Eisner, in the hospital would help her stay alive. Herzog’s account is a stream-of-consciousness journal not originally intended for publication, and it is both mundane and magical. His walk is far from hospitable, he has a difficult time finding a place to stay (which he frequently resolves with the questionable practice of breaking into people’s unoccupied vacation homes), and people often treat him like a vagrant. He recognizes the pedestrian-unfriendly landscape- “you pass a lot of discarded rubbish as you walk”- and the all-too-relatable physical challenges of walking- “I had no idea walking could hurt so much.” Even as he goes slightly crazy and has “long dialogues with… imaginary persons,” he notes the movements of birds, the activities of people in the towns, and other mundane things with matter-of-fact and beautiful language. A short and digestible book, it has something intangible in common with his films and could make anyone want to embark on a poetic feat of human endurance.
You can click on any of the titles to buy the book on Amazon. The links are provided for convenience, but I figured I’d set up the commission system just in case anyone wants to buy them (gotta pay for that domain, yo). So if this article did make you want to buy one of these books doing it here would be greatly appreciated!