Posts Tagged ‘Thoreau’

Frederic Gros: A Philosophy of Walking

July 30, 2019

91BBJbiHQXL._AC_UY218_QL90_  It’s a long time since I came cross such a frustrating book. I count myself as a walker, in that I try and walk everywhere I can in my normal daily routines, and in that I love going off on walking tours, exploring hills and forests and taking in the beauty of the countryside. Although I’d also like to undertake some long-distance trails, I think that age and a foot problem probably exclude this. So a book about walking ought to be right up my street (!).

But reading this was like trying to nail jelly to a wall. Gros hardly ever seemed to be going anywhere clear, he rambled (verbally) and spent a lot of time stating what I’m afraid I have to call the bloody obvious if you are a walker yourself, leading me to think that, if you’re not a walker, then you won’t find this book very helpful, either.

He writes about famous people who apparently walked a lot – Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Kant and others, but I could never really see what he was achieving by using them as examples. A good deal of what he had to say was plain common-sense dressed up a philosophy, banal to any serious walker, I would have thought. I found him most (and that wasn’t very) interesting on Thoreau and the contrasts the latter drew between frugality and austerity, and between benefit and profit, when considering decisions about how to run his life. Gros also had a few thought-provoking comments about the idea of pilgrimage too, and I learned more about Gandhi and his many non-violent protests, which also involved a lot of walking.

So, what was the purpose behind this book? What can it say to us ordinary walkers? To this one, it was vacuous and ultimately forgettable, as well as pretentious in a way that only a certain type of very annoying French writer can be. Professional, long-distance walkers and pilgrims could write something far better and more interesting: let me point you in the direction of another French walker who is miles (!) better: Bernard Ollivier. I’ve written about many of his books, if you care to search my posts. He writes about the astonishing walks he’s actually done, the people and places he’s been to and encountered, and, more to our point here, a real philosophy of walking (though I’m not sure he’d call it that) emerges as he walks and writes…

American literature and me

August 28, 2015

American literature was part of my study syllabus at university, and I remember enjoying it very much, at times more than the Eng Lit I was also reading, but I cannot now remember why, apart from the lifelong love of Mark Twain it gave me. I liked his adventurous and pioneering life, his wide-roaming travels, and the ways in which he brought his own childhood to life in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. One got a sense of the relative innocence of the times, and the incredible freedom available then, too. I taught Tom Sawyer whenever I could at school, and I think my pupils enjoyed it mostly, identifying with the adventures, the rebellion, the dangers and the finding of a fortune.

It’s the American Dream, par excellence, of course, in the days when perhaps it still was available to everyone; Huck’s decision to light out for the territory is an astonishing breath of freedom and escape from a stifling world. Twain also conveys his love for the physical landscape and the vastness of the United States: Life on the Mississippi is his tribute, and I can thoroughly recommend the excellent Librivox recording of it.

I read Moby Dick and was suitably awed by it at the time, but have felt no call to re-read it. On the other hand, Walden bored me to tears as an undergraduate, and I only came to appreciate it in later years. Its magic was a little dimmed by the discovery that the cabin in the woods, though isolated, was not that far from civilisation, and Thoreau was able to take his washing home for his mother to do… Emerson and the transcendentalists left me cold; I loved Poe and his macabre tales. In the twentieth century, I could not get into Faulkner, and though I tackled a lot of Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby left me, and still leaves me, utterly unmoved.

More recent writings I have warmed to include those of Garrison Keillor; again, his tales capture some of the original innocence of bygone days and the back of beyond. In my hippy days I loved the vague and lyrical weirdness of Richard Brautigan, but have not gone back to him despite the books still lying on my bookshelf. You can keep Don de Lillo.

If I had to nominate a single twentieth century American classic, it would undoubtedly be Joseph Heller’s masterpiece, Catch-22, which will stand up to any number of re-readings; satire, history and gut-churning realism, it destroys the illusion of a ‘good’ war and forces the reader to engage with the complexity of the issues.

Science fiction has been an enormous part of American literature in the past fifty or sixty years and the US contribution to the development and flourishing of the genre should not be overlooked or underestimated: let’s mention Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Philip Dick and Ursula LeGuin just for the record… and then there’s detective fiction and Raymond Chandler

For me, American literature epitomises freedom and independence; the proclaims a sense of space and freedom to experiment, to be able to rewind or go back to start in so many ways, if one’s original ideas don’t work, and this is not the way we tend to think or to view life here, I feel. There’s a sense of power, too, which comes from living in a country which is also a continent: there are no enemies bigger than you, no possibility of invasion and conquest – again, how unlike Europe – ironically the US thereby actually becomes more isolated, more insular, and that’s something we know about here in England too.

The profound differences between the dynamism, violence and openness of the US continue to astonish me; perhaps I am naive, but I sometimes feel the almost-shared language has hidden these differences from this Brit…

Sara Maitland: A Book of Silence

October 2, 2013

9781582436135I’ve written about silence before (Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Silence: A Christian History) and recently re-read this book, which is also about silence with a Christian perspective, but also about the personal need of, and quest by the writer to find a suitably silent place to live out the rest of her life.

We live in an incredibly noisy world: traffic noise, ambient music, machinery that beeps and squeaks whenever we use it. There is an awful lot of meaningless conversation and talk to fill up the gaps, and in some ways perhaps many people are afraid of silence. Maitland explores the issue from all angles: it’s an erudite read, and yet she is always in there herself, and thus enabling a reader to explore for themselves, too. In some ways she follows in the footsteps of Thoreau, except the house that she creates for herself (in an isolated part of Scotland) is not seen as a temporary, but a permanent home. There were times when I felt she was being rather self-indulgent, but her quest made sense and I was happy that she seemed to have achieved her goal. It is good when a writer can acknowledge and explore more than the material aspects of our existence, and this is an account of a spiritual quest, too.

It is hard going in places, but a good book and thought-provoking, which is why I went back to it.

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