I recently finished two books, Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost and Amélie Nothomb’s Life Form. The Solnit book is amazing. I’ve read one other Solnit book before, Wanderlust, which I highly recommend to anyone who likes walking or who simply likes interesting nonfiction that draws on multiple genres. A Field Guide to Getting Lost is just as good. It’s shorter than the other, more meditative and less about information, but it’s similarly smart and beautifully-written. The book isn’t presented as a series of essays, but that’s what it is, basically — essays that all touch on being lost or losing something in some way. She writes a lot about being lost in nature, but also about being emotionally lost, or what we lose when when we lose contact with nature, and also about voyagers’ and explorers’ stories of being lost. She writes about what is valuable about lostness: that it opens up the possibility for discovery, for finding things we never knew. The first essay is a contemplation of a quotation from a Socratic dialogue: “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?” All the essays in some way or other are about how being lost takes us into the unknown. Being lost is not a negative state: it can be a dangerous one, yes, but a productive one too. The essays range widely in their subjects; they contain personal writing as well as history, philosophy, nature writing, and other genres, but Solnit always brings everything together — finds her way back — in satisfying ways.
The other book, Nothomb’s Life Form, is a novella, and I was drawn to it in part because it uses the epistolary form, a favorite of mine. It’s not entirely made of letters, but much of the text is, and the rest is the main character’s analysis of those letters. That main character is named Amélie Nothomb, and while normally I find it annoying when authors give characters their own names, it didn’t bother me here because it was integral to the story. She receives a letter from a fan who is a soldier in the Iraq war, and the two begin corresponding regularly. This allows Nothomb to write about what it’s like to be an author who receives fan mail and why she writes back and why she chooses to write what she does to her correspondents. This particular correspondent is deeply unhappy in the war and has responded — as have other fellow soldiers — by aggressively overeating and becoming obese. There’s a twist at the novel’s end that I saw coming from far away and another aspect of the ending that just seemed bizarre, but it’s still an interesting meditation on how people respond to war and how art can and can’t improve their lives. I wasn’t sure I liked the way obesity becomes a metaphor for the wrongs of war; there’s always something a little disturbing when actual illnesses get transformed into metaphors and lose their realness. But Nothomb uses the epistolary form well, which to me means using it as a way to think about the act of letter-writing, and of writing generally, itself.