A Field Guide to Getting Lost – Rebecca Solnit

My mother is coming to visit this week. It will be her second time in NYC and the first time was accompanying my sister on a choir field trip (which meant she saw Central Park and Times Square and that-is-it-thank-you-very-much). I am now responsible for culturing my mother in the ways of NYC. Wish me luck.

Here’s another interesting one.

Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost.

I say this is an interesting one because I was so on the fence about reading it as part of this self-guided travel writing curriculum. This book is currently number thirty-five on Amazon’s list of best selling travel writing books and, when I was researching what I should read, it came up on multiple people’s lists of best travel books.

But the description on the back… didn’t sound like it was presenting a travel book.

I had been meaning to read something of hers anyway–her topics are fascinating and, of late, she’s been popping up all over my various social media feeds and email newsletters. So I figured, why not? Just put this book on the list of things to read and it’ll sort itself out.

Spoiler: not a travel book.

Or, rather, if it is a travel book, any book that mentions being in different parts of the world or any book in which its author goes somewhere or engages in some form of long-distance transport is also a travel book

Not that I regret reading it. Solnit is a wonderful writer, it turns out, and her way of engaging with philosophy is delightful and engaging. Her writing, her sentence structure and vocabulary are so smooth, it’s like mental honey–but without all the sweetness. And her prose is incredibly tight. You can’t skim or speed-read this book, as every word matters. If she put it there, it’s there for a reason and you better read it or you’re going to get lost.

Did she travel in this book? Yes, she did. In moments. In paragraphs. She went to places and she thought about them. She thought about people. She thought about history and memories and what makes us us and what our idea of “lost” means–and how we engage with that idea.

But travel wasn’t the framework. It was merely a reference point when one was needed, or a well-crafted description of a scene or movement that helped her get to where she was going with an idea or feeling.

It was all excellent. I am going to be reading more of her work, more of her interviews and commentary. And I’m looking forward to it.

As an odd little note, most of the places she mentions by name are places I have been. I knew exactly what and where she was talking about and could see it all the clearer because of it. Pretty stellar.

Quotes for your reading pleasure:

“Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go.”

“And there’s another art of being at home in the unknown, so that being in its midst isn’t cause for panic or suffering, or being at home with being lost.”

“Nights alone in motels in remote western towns where I know no one and no one I know knows where I am, nights with the strange paintings and floral spreads and cable television that furnish a reprieve from my own biography, which in Benjamin’s terms I have lost myself thought I know where I am.”

“Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing. There are objects and people that disappear from your sight or knowledge or possession; you lose a bracelet, a friend, a key. You still know where you are. Everything is familiar except that there is one item less, one missing element. Or you get lost, in which case the world has become larger than your knowledge of it. Either way, there is a loss of control. Imagine yourself streaming through time shedding gloves, umbrellas, wrenches, books, friends, homes, names.”

“Of course to forget the past is to lose the sense of loss that is also memory of an absent richness and a set of clues to navigate the present by; the art is not one of forgetting but letting go. And when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss.”

“Some things we have only as long as they remain lost, some things are not lost only so long as they remain distant.”

“Sometimes an old photograph, an old friend, an old letter will remind you that you are not who you once were, for the person who dwelt among them, valued this, chose that, wrote thus, no longer exists. Without noticing it you have traversed a great distance; the strange has become familiar and the familiar if not strange at least awkward or uncomfortable, an outgrown garment.”

“Exceptional beauty and charm are among those gifts given by the sinister fairy at the christening. They give the bearer considerable sway over others, which can keep them so busy being a sort of siren on the rocks where others shipwreck that they forget that they themselves need to figure out where they are going.”

“Adulthood is made up of a prudent anticipation and a philosophical memory that make you navigate more slowly and steadily. But fear of making mistakes can itself become a huge mistake, one that prevents you from living, for life is risky and anything less is already lost.”

“Perhaps it’s that you can’t go back in time, but you can return to the scenes of a love, of a crime, of happiness, and of a fatal decision; the places are what remain, are what you can possess, are what is immortal. They become the tangible landscape of memory, the places that made you, and in some way you too become them.”

“When someone doesn’t show up, the people who wait sometimes tell stories about what might have happened and come to half believe the desertion, the abduction, the accident. Worry is a way to pretend that you have knowledge or control over what you don’t–and it surprises me, even in myself, how much we prefer ugly scenarios to the pure unknown.”

“We fly; we dream in darkness; we devour heaven in bites too small to be measured.”