Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them. It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thougts.

Ancient Greek philosophers discovered the benefits of walking and thinking but it wasn’t really until Rosseau, suggests Rebecca Solnit in Wanderlust: A History of Walking, that a literature of walking began to take shape. However, not until Dorothy and William Wordsworth came along did walking become a form of art as well as something people did for pleasure. And walking ever since has been laden with meaning in various contexts.

Walking of course has always been something people do to get from Point A to Point B, a practical thing. But the act of walking is transformed within various contexts such as that of pilgrimage or the labyrinth. Walking has also been performed in the private space of enclosed gardens. But Wordsworth and company, they turned it into an aesthetic event, a chance to get out into nature, to see the views, to meet people. Decent roads and a dropping crime rate made this possible. In increasingly urban environments the advent of lights and sidewalks helped transform cities from dangerous to those afoot to the creation of wide boulevards where people walked out to see and be seen.

Solnit’s book is a fascinating read in the history of something that is so mundane we don’t generally think about it unless something happens that prevents us from doing it. Walking has a deep cultural history and the circumstances of who is allowed to walk in public, when and where is affected by race, class and gender. My favorite chapters of Wanderlust focused on the history of protest walks and women walking. You probably will not be surprised that women on public streets are given mostly negative descriptions while men get strong postive ones. Think, for instance, of the difference between a “streetwalker” and a “man on the street.”

Solnit also provides a delightful analysis of why Lizzie Bennet walking to Netherfield to care for her ill sister was so transgressive. And not only that, she also examies various other ways Austen uses walking in her novels to signal moral and cultural issues.

The history of the automobile looms large in the history of walking. The advent of the car made the suburbs possible and very quickly our lives and the life of cities became centered around cars and moving cars from here to there. While reading Solnit’s discussion about car culture, I was reminded of a scene from the movie L.A. Story when Steve Martin gets in his car and drives three houses down the street to go see a neighbor. There is also the Missing Persons song, “Nobody Walks in LA.” And it is true, I used to live there and to walk on the street made you a target, especially walking while female, even in broad daylight.

Solnit also examines the privatization of public space and how malls have taken over the landscape. Malls are private property and public gatherings there for things like protests can be deemed illegal by the property owners. The truly public places we can go to exercise our constitutional right of assembly are shrinking and in some areas nonexistent. Solnit worries how this affects democracy.

I could go on and on because this book is so rich. I never thought much about all the implications invovled in the act of walking but Solnit does a great job at laying them all out and examining them in such a way that they each get their own focus but also get wrapped in and connected with other aspects of walking and culture. I found it a highly readable and greatly enjoyable book.

The only thing I found annoying about it was a language tick Solnit has. Instead of saying “also” or “and” or “in addition” she always said “too” and she always used it at the beginning of a sentence — “Too, …” She does it so often that it made me cringe. To use it now and then, fine, but Solnit borders on abusive usage. There is nothing wrong with the grammar of it, I just found it jarring and inelegant and for someone of Solnit’s writing talent I expect her to do better than that. Wanderlust was published in 2001 and is her fourth book so I suppose I can cut her some slack for still being a newish writer at the time. The later books of hers I have read do not seem to have the “too” problem so it seems to be a quirk she has gotten over or something an editor has corrected.

Don’t let the little oddity stop you though. If you are looking for some enjoyable nonfiction of the social history kind, consider Wanderlust, you won’t be disappointed.