The walking essay

I could write a post on each and every chapter of Jeffrey Robinson’s book The Walk, although I won’t, as I’ve already read four or five chapters now without commenting on them and I’d have to catch up (and you might get bored), but I say I could write a post on each chapter because they are all so suggestive and thought-provoking and fun.

So I’ll limit myself to a few quotations from Robinson’s chapter on the the walking essay, which begins with this marvelous bit about Virginia Woolf and essays:

For no subgenre of literature do Virginia Woolf’s remarks on the requirements for the essay — that it “lap us about and draw its curtain across the world” — apply more aptly than for the walking essay. If one does not, at least while reading such an essay, believe in the cozy pleasure of essay reading, a pleasure in which the mind is active but refuses the sharp twists and turns of mind in its most elaborate purposefulness, then one should not waste time with walking essays. In the walking essay, familiarity is its own solution; it confirms itself. One walks either to make a destination, or one walks for the pleasure of walking, says the walking tradition. If you choose the latter walk, you approximate the choice to read a walking essay.

I love the way Robinson connects the experience of walking with that of reading — he does it throughout the book; in fact, that’s really the main idea running through it. And with the walking essay, the idea is that walking and reading both offer a comforting familiarity, a way of engaging the mind that is active, but meandering. The point is not to get anywhere particular; the point is to enjoy the journey. No wonder I love both walking and essay reading so much! A bit later Robinson describes discovering a wealth of walking essays, once he began to look for them, and writes that walkers, “who are almost always bona fide essayists, are urged from somewhere to ambulate on paper about ambulation.”

Robinson also talks about how walking is similar to reading and writing essays because they are both about collecting: readers and writers love to collect essays; walkers love to collect experiences and observations and memories; essays are collections of observations, events, and sometimes lists. He has this to say about the essay:

Acquisition seems to be an important impulse behind the familiar essayist’s activity. Essayists love to list things, particularly, though not by any means exclusively, books. As many essays as there are about walking, there are perhaps twice as many or more about book collections, libraries, books-I-have-enjoyed.

Now this description of the essay reminds me of book blogs, with their frequent lists and tales of book acquisitions and descriptions of books-I-have-enjoyed. Perhaps blogs are about collection too — the collection of posts, of memories, of thoughts, of comments.

Then the essay moves into a discussion of library organization (these chapters really do wander from subject to subject), and includes this wonderful quotation from A.A. Milne on shelving books:

To come to Keats is no guarantee that we are on the road to Shelley. Shelley, if he did not drop out on the way, is probably next to How to be a Golfer through Middle-Aged.

Having written as far as this, I had to get up and see where Shelley really was. It is worse than I thought. He is between Geometrical Optics and Studies in New Zealand Scenery. Ella Wheeler Wilcox, whom I find myself to be entertaining unawares, sits beside Anarchy or Order, which was apparently “sent in the hope that you will become a member of the Duty and Discipline Movement” — a vain hope, it would seem, for I have not yet paid my subscription. What I found Out, by an English Governness, shares a corner with The Recreations of a Country Parson; they are followed by Villette and Baedeker’s Switzerland. Something will have to be done about it.

I am not quite sure how Robinson got from the Virginia Woolf quotation to this A.A. Milne one, but I can say that the journey from one to the other was a pleasure.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

6 responses to “The walking essay

  1. Oh, I absolutely love that A. A. Milne quote!


  2. Oh this sounds like a fun book. It would be quite okay by me if you write a post about every chapter 🙂


  3. Oh yes indeed, walking and essaying both have that quality of exploration. Even if there is a definite destination, how one gets there is not necessarily prescribed, and there can be surprises along the way.


  4. This sounds like a lovely comfort book, but I wonder whether the analogy between walking and reading always holds good? Some books make you feel like you are running for you life, and others that you are in some strange state of zero gravity!


  5. I am a walker, but not an essayist! I really enjoy readng essays and have gotten away from them (from the few I was reading earlier in the year anyway). I need to pick up a book of essays again (or dip into my Lopate book). This sounds like a fun book–thanks for sharing the quotes–I will have to add it to my wishlist.


  6. I do too, Emily — it makes me want to look for the original essay. Stefanie — thank you! I don’t think I will though 🙂 Sylvia — I agree; I rarely walk without a destination or a path in mind, but I still think of it as walking for the pleasure of it. Litlove, I’m sure the analogy doesn’t always hold — I like your two alternate possibilities! I’m quite fond of the walking/reading analogy, but I can see how that comes out of my personality and inclinations and history and not everyone would feel the same. Danielle, I’m not an essayists either — I don’t quite agree with him on that one. Although blog posts aren’t so different from essays …


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