The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science, Philosophy, and Literature of Pedestrianism

By Geoff Nicholson
Riverhead Books, 2008, 288pp
ISBN 9781594489983

Geoff Nicholson is a walker. It is what he likes to talk about; it is how he defines himself. So he requested and received his publisher’s approval to write a book about walking. However, this book is not about the ‘art of walking’. The author readily admits that he was in fact laid-up for much of the writing process due to injury. Perhaps for that reason, the book reads like an anthology of walks – littered by the author’s personal anecdotes and opinions about walking and walkers. But the book does do one thing very well – it makes you want to take a good walk.

Early in the first chapter, after describing the random, very damaging fall he suffered, Nicholson hits on a curious truth – in fact, humans are not very well adapted to walking. After all this evolution, we are still prone to frequent and occasionally severe foot, back, knee, and leg injuries. And while this seems to be a negative, his personal experience with injury provides the author with a revelation. He is able to identify that his attraction to walking is linked to his own personal contentment. He walks to feel happy, to release himself from the onset of depression, to resolve questions with his writing.

After this honesty about his own relationship with walking, it seems unfortunate that the tone of his book does not follow in that vein. This book is written from, and perhaps for, a white, hetero, male, British perspective. And his pronounced judgments about other walkers that do not coincide with that perspective permeate throughout the text. His response to pedestrian-advocacy and the ‘New Agers’ (sic) are uniquely glib and dismissive. As he sees it, most people who claim to be environmentally conscious are hypocrites who drive long distances in order to get in to ‘nature’ and go for a good walk. While he has a general point that this reader does not ignore, these types of judgements about how others value walking cannot help but leave a sour taste.

There are, however, some wonderful anecdotes throughout the book, provided by great walkers of yesteryear. These passages lend a gift of perspective and scope that the author’s words are often unable to accomplish. For instance, the author quotes William Blake as he refers to the need so many of us feel to shape our own environments by the walks we take when he says, “I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s”.

The book’s unquestionable value is that the author whets your appetite for walking. In disclosure, since receiving the book, I have spent much more time walking than reading the text. Nicholson’s accomplishment is to tell tale after tale of walks and walkers: odd quests and benign routes, Crip Walk dance and walking sticks, some legendary tales, and some fake legends. But instead of digging into these stories, his descriptions often read as Wikipedia summaries – basic facts, curious surprises, and a lightly tossed, sometimes humourous remark that sums up the author’s opinion on that topic.

So follow the books examples. Get outside. Breathe some air. And walk.

By Tim Wojcik

One Comment

  1. Tameka Luke
    Posted 27 May, 2010 at 21:01 | Permalink

    If I had a nickel for every time I came to! Incredible article!

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