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At seventy-five, I don’t walk as much (or as quickly) as I have for most of my life. Still, Wendy and I take a walk every day, weather and other circumstances permitting; in the summer months, we often take a shorter evening walk as well. (It’s especially lovely to see the fireflies in the yards we pass, and in our own front yard when we’re back home.)
I treasure these times. But I also like to read about walking, a very different sort of “traveling.” And I’m in luck: Interesting books on the subject continue to pop up left and right, so much so that I can hardly keep up. My walking books, old and new, once occupying several shelves in one room of the house, have proliferated and are now concentrated in several different locations, upstairs and down, not to mention odd volumes that have somehow been separated from the flock.
The latest addition to my walking library is a gorgeously produced volume from Yale University Press, The Art of Walking: A History in 100 Images, by William Chapman Sharpe. I wish that someone would undertake a substantial essay on the evolution of the genre this book represents, which puts a premium on suggestive juxtaposition. You can read such a volume as you might a conventionally organized “history,” but most readers, I suspect, will not do that, preferring to leaf through it, pausing when their attention is arrested.
The front flap of the dust jacket, describing the book, adopts a rather flat-faced lecturing tone that seems at odds with the character of the project: “a depicted walk,” we’re instructed, “is always more than a matter of simple steps.” Indeed!
“Whether sculpted in stone, captured on film, or traced by GPS technology on a computer screen, each detail of gait and dress, each stride and gesture has a story to tell, for every aspect of walking is shaped by social practices and environmental conditions.” Social practices and environmental conditions! How dreary. But even though the discrete text entries accompanying the 100 images gathered here, in chronological sequence, often adopt that po-faced manner, the sheer variety of the images, the extraordinary historical and cultural range of the selections, trumps their didactic intent.
You will read the book as you please (if, as I hope, you decide to check it out yourself), but I counsel against taking more than two or three entries at a time. Even a single entry (“Wandering Jews,” for instance, or “The Shrouded Stride of Liberty,” or “Re-Viewing the Walking Tour”) typically delivers the concentrated jolt of a triple espresso. Without caviling in the least at the author’s selection of images for our instruction, I found myself imagining a similar project with different images and a different set of priorities.
I’ve thought a good deal about Sharpe’s book even when I wasn’t reading it. Walking in the nearby neighborhoods, Wendy and I have passed by various houses, yards, gardens, trees, and such many (many) times. Even a single block on a single street in our little section of Wheaton, Illinois, includes a range of places with different auras, different styles, embodied in countless ways. The repetition could be boring, but only with many walks can you begin to take in such variety, so that the individuality of each “place” on a block is palpable.
If there is a special pleasure that comes from walking in an unfamiliar setting, seeing it for the first time, there is also a distinctive pleasure that can only be achieved over time, an intimacy of knowing. Here are the two small brick houses adjoining each other where (so we have conjectured) two old ladies (but we are now old ourselves!) live companionably; could they be sisters, whose husbands have died? Glancing at their windows as we pass feels, for a moment, like looking back in time (the furnishings, briefly glimpsed, are not of this moment). What happened in this other household, where the yard was always gloriously maintained, and where a large garden flourished but is now neglected? We pass by; we keep walking.
“In the end,” William Chapman Sharpe writes in his conclusion, “a visual history of walking may be as evanescent as the activity it sketches but can never fully describe. Thought lines made by walking in the dawn will change and fade as the sun rises over new paths only beginning to form.”
Very true. I look forward to revisiting this particular “visual history of walking.” And let me know if you check it out yourself.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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