Go wander

For the past decade-and-a-half, Rebecca Solnit has been thinking about Americans and motion and our conflicting desires to both destroy and explore our landscape. Her breakthrough book, Wanderlust, offered a clever cultural history of mankind and walking, observing that automated motion has distanced us from the speed of our thoughts—which explains why some of the world’s deepest thinkers also have been keen on the art of a good stroll.

Solnit’s latest book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, is an even more far-reaching meditation on the art of wandering—only now she has focused on travel without a destination. This is a book about losing yourself. “That thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost,” she writes. “The word ‘lost’ comes from the Old Norse los, meaning the disbanding of an army, and this origin suggests soldiers falling out of formation to go home, a truce with the wide world. I worry now that many people never disband their armies, never go beyond what they know.”

A Field Guide is a kind of self-help book for the philosophically inclined, its geography spanning the personal to the actual. Every other essay in the book is titled “The Blue of Distance,” and these bring us back to the color blue, memory and artistic representations of the gap between here and there.

“Light at the blue end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the sun to us,” Solnit notes in the first of these refrain-like essays. Before it reaches us, it “disperses among the molecules of the air, it scatters in water.” Hence, the sky is blue, but so, Solnit argues, are the things that we dream about from a distance.

As you probably have guessed at this point, Solnit is not an essayist of the five-paragraph stripe. She layers ideas like a painter does pigment, and she doesn’t mind a little splatter. Her sentences tend to meander like a dog off a leash, nose to the ground, following a scent and an instinct that often eludes the rest of us. When she comes bounding back out of the brush, it is usually not an answer but a question she has retrieved. Solnit could not get away with such indolence were she not such a fine writer—one so capable of transporting us from our over-air-conditioned coffee shops and lounge chairs into a place both wild and evocative.

Some of the loveliest writing in this book grows out of the rough soil of Solnit’s own experience—where personal loss has been mulched down into melancholy and introspection, and then replanted with something whimsical and skyward-reaching. The essay “Abandon” recalls her misbegotten youthful love affair with punk rock and a friend who did not survive that age.

There are frustrating omissions in this book, to be sure—many of them of the practical variety. There is much talk of maps, for instance, but precious little on property law; Solnit talks quite a bit about motion but neglects to comment on something as basic as today’s prohibitive gasoline prices.

But to linger on such details misses the point of A Field Guide to Getting Lost. The first place we must go to lose ourselves is the terra incognita of our minds, Solnit suggests again and again, and this impractical but beautiful book provides a sort of compass for that trip. It’s well worth squeezing into your pocket.