Every time I pick up Jeffrey Robinson’s book The Walk it makes me happy, and what more can one ask from a book? The Walk also makes me open up my computer almost immediately to see if the books it mentions are available. Yesterday I came across a reference to The Lore of the Wander: An Open-Air Anthology by George Goodchild (Amazon doesn’t have it, although I found it elsewhere), and E.V. Lucas’s collection of essays Turning Things Over, which contains an essay entitled “A Journey Round a Room” which Robinson praises highly, and which is inspired by Xavier de Maistre’s A Journey Around my Room (published by Hesperus), which I read and loved a few years ago. You see why this is fun?
This book isn’t perfect; I was disappointed by the third chapter, entitled “Throwing off the Burden: Walking and the Self,” which sounds so promising but didn’t quite deliver. Robinson seemed most interested in talking about walking and the self to make a point about Wordsworth, when I would have preferred him to talk about Wordsworth to make a point about walking and the self. This book is quite short — 140 pages — and I’m discovering that it makes no attempt to dive deeply into ideas, but instead covers a lot of ground (so to speak), and so is more suggestive than thorough. I’d like it to be more thorough, but I’m also coming to think that its suggestiveness is part of what makes me so happy; it leaves lots of room for me to read and think some more.
But even that disappointing chapter has this utterly charming pair of quotations to offer; first, this is Hazlitt from his wonderful walking essay “On Going a Journey”:
Give me the clear blue sky over my head, and the green turf beneath my feet, a winding road before me, and a three hours’ march to dinner — and then to thinking! It is hard if I cannot start some game on these lone heaths. I laugh, I run, I leap, I sing for joy. From the point of yonder rolling cloud, I plunge into my past being, and revel there, as the sun-burnt Indian plunges headlong into the wave that wafts him to his native shore. Then long-forgotten things, like ‘sunken wrack and sumless treasuries,’ burst upon my eager sight, and I begin to feel, think, and be myself again.
I think that’s wonderful, but I’m also sympathetic with Robert Louis Stevenson who has this to say about Hazlitt (from “Walking Tours”) — and those of you who are feeling overwhelmed by all that laughing, running, leaping, and singing might like it too:
I do not approve of that leaping and running. Both of these hurry the respiration, they both shake up the brain out of its glorious open-air confusion, and they both break the pace. Uneven walking is not so agreeable to the body and it distracts and irritates the mind. Whereas, when once you have fallen into an equable stride, it requires no conscious thought from you to keep it up, and yet it prevents you from thinking earnestly of anything else. Like knitting, like the work of a copying clerk, it gradually neutralises and sets to sleep the serious activity of the mind.
Although I admire Hazlitt’s energy and joy in his walking, I’m more on the side of Stevenson; I prefer to let walking soothe and calm my mind, almost to put it to sleep, and to walk in a regular pattern that invites a kind of quiet meditation. I don’t need to walk to think; I need to walk to keep from thinking.
And a couple more quotations from the introductory chapter (I haven’t even touched on the chapter on the walking essay, which I’ll have to save for another post):
The walker observes things from a distance, and if the power of the object is in some way too compelling, he by definition detaches himself from it by walking on. Yet the walker is in experience, feels and thinks in his movement through time and space, and is reaching out (or can) to the world in time. To deny either side of the walk is to deny half of experience.
When I walk, my mind does not flow like a stream. More literary than that, it works in mixed genres: at times autobiography, polemic, natural description, dialogue, essay, even treatise, story. Sometimes it seems a genre that keep resisting genre. Sometimes internal pressures or laxities break the integrity of genre. Other times the break comes from the squirrel that will not get off the path, the sprinkler’s spray that I must circle around, the old man trudging past in a heavy great coat on this warm day, the vague green lines of algae on lake water.
Robinson constantly points to the ways writing and reading and walking are all similar; in fact, I don’t think you can write a book about walking without doing so to some degree. He slips back and forth between the experience of walking and the experience of reading as though they are the same thing: “walkers, who are almost always bona fide essayists, are urged from somewhere to ambulate on paper about ambulation.”