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A new book by Geoff Nicholson has me thinking once again about walking. It's called Walking on Thin Air: A Life’s Journey in 99 Steps. If you are a fellow devotee of pedestrianism, you are likely to have read Nicholson’s The Lost Art of Walking (2008), which came relatively early in the current vogue for the subject. Not that writing-about-walking has ever been on the verge of extinction or anything close to that, but we’ve seen an explosion of books from every imaginable angle, a trend some date back to Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Nicholson has written a lot of books, including a shelf full of fiction (Bleeding London has to be included on any credible shortlist of “walking novels”), but I think it’s his nonfictional ruminations on this subject that have won for him an unusually wide and faithful readership.

Very early on in this new book, Nicholson tells us that a few years ago, he was diagnosed with a form of chronic leukemia. He has weekly injections to keep the disease in check, insofar as that’s achievable. “The prognosis is not great,” he acknowledges, but for the time being, “I carry on walking because it’s what I do, what I’ve always done. And I continue to write and read and think and talk about it, and if much of my interest seems arty or literary or bookish, well, that’s who I am.”

As the subtitle indicates, Walking on Thin Air is divided into ninety-nine brief sections. It’s a form I find congenial in the hands of a writer as canny and cagey as Nicholson. Here’s one delectable example, #41 (to call these installments “chapters” seems off). I have to quote the first paragraph in full to give you the flavor:

I never understand people who need music while walking, or who even compile playlists to listen to as they walk. For that matter I never understand those, Baudrillard among them, who talk about the silence of the desert. Deserts are rarely if ever silent. There’s wind, there are birds, and over large parts of the American desert there are likely to be jet fighters. I like to be able to hear the noises going on around me, whatever they may be. Which inevitably brings us to John Cage.

From here, Nicholson segues to a visit to the house in Eagle Rock, California, where Cage “grew up, in a comparatively modest Arts and Crafts style bungalow” (at 2708 Moss Ave., if you happen to be in the neighborhood). Nicholson and a “walking pal” visit the house, and he fills us in on the background: “The house was built from scratch by Cage’s own father (also named John). Cage senior was an inventor by profession, who worked on early versions of colour television, sonar, and a ‘Mist-A-Cold’ medical inhaler. His most famous project was a failed diesel submarine.”

If this doesn’t charm and entice you at once, you won’t enjoy Nicholson’s book. If it does, you are in for a treat. You never know where the next installment among the ninety-nine will take you (I’m manfully resisting the urge to quote a series of opening gambits). Many of the sections are very short, and they are all concise, yet I never felt cheated. The unpredictable shifts from subject to subject are delicious; the range of reference is enormous (never showy, but playful). Right at the very end, death and suffering and Nicholson’s own prospects are more prominent, but in just proportion.

I hope Walking on Thin Air, apart from beguiling many readers, will inspire some writers to go and do likewise—not necessarily inspired by an illness such as his or indeed anything remotely like that, but rather energized by his example to borrow the “form” he has so deftly fashioned, unintimidated by worries that such a book will strike many readers as too “artsy.” Nicholson has given us a splendid example of imaginative freedom. It would not be a waste of time to simply read the opening sentence of each of the ninety-nine sections in succession. Keep this book in mind when you are thinking of birthdays and holidays and other gift-giving occasions; for those on Nicholson’s wavelength it will instantly become a favorite, as it is now for me.

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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