Here is an odd development: I have decided to carry a book. For at least the coming season, when, with hope, we head out once again for afternoon or evening walks, I want this book with me. I plan to open it, often, every day.
"Sauntering: Writers Walk Europe," edited by Duncan Minshull, is a work of impressive scope. Sixty authors write about their walks through 22 European countries, from Petrarch climbing Mount Ventoux in 1350, to Kate Humble on her own French stroll in 2018, and Minshull has culled their work into excerpts ranging from one page to six.
Read one selection and you will smile. Read three and you'll be lacing your boots.
Yes, the internet has 100 lists of the 100 best walking books. Think Cheryl Strayed's "Wild." However, walking is the method of these books, not really the subject. The genius of "Sauntering" is that it celebrates the act itself, the joy as well as pain of walking. There are narratives of sunny valleys as well as of frightening wartime trenches. The book has nothing to do with exercise and everything to do with a way of seeing.
In his introduction, Minshull writes: "Words come easily en route. Physical movement frees the mind, stirs up thoughts and this leads to a brilliant insight or two. … A theatre of walking types is what struck me as I sorted these extracts, with Europe acting as the mis-en-scene. Ex-pat authors, pilgrims and paraders have passed so far. Who else shall show?"
Reading "Sauntering" creates a type of desire. A desire to be out, to participate, to see.
"If you go to a place on anything but your own feet you are taken there too fast, and miss a thousand delicate joys that were waiting for you by the wayside," writes Elizabeth Von Arnim in her excerpt, from 1904.
While the book does begin with examples of people setting out, it does not follow a necessary arc of either time or place. It's easy to dip in and out, to skip, to go back and retrace an earlier path.
Many of the names are familiar, even if not for their perambulations. Franz Kafka, Edith Wharton, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Werner Herzog, Ludwig Van Beethoven, Katherine Mansfield, Rebecca Solnit, Thomas Jefferson — the list goes on. Happily, a great many of the names are also fresh.
Henriette d'Angeville climbs Mont Blanc. Richard Wright travels through Spain and writes about the religious parades. Edmondo de Amicis writes about women walking in Istanbul. In 1915, Edith Wharton commissions Joseph Conrad to walk around Cracow.
"Sauntering" is not very big. At only 160 pages and 4¾ by 7½ inches, it does not take up very much room in my bag. There is a celebration of witness in this book. Perhaps that's why I enjoy it so much.
No entry takes more than a few minutes to read, and each one makes me want to go walking, to be present in the world. As the selection from Balzac reminds us: "To saunter is a science. To saunter is to live."
W. Scott Olsen is a writer based in Moorhead, Minn.
Edited by: Duncan Minshull.
Publisher: NYRB/Notting Hill, 154 pages, $19.95.