I would call A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit’s new book, atypical, except that I’m not quite sure what constitutes “normal” for this writer. Solnit is the author of eight previous books, and they are quite a mixed bunch. Two of them, Wanderlust and River of Shadows, could be considered histories, of walking and modernism respectively. Savage Dreams seems to be a travelogue/memoir mixed with political commentary on the nuclear tested Nevada desert and Yosemite. There’s also Hope in the Dark, a collection of essays on why we all shouldn’t be depressed with the world as it is, and four other sundry books.
So although A Field Guide to Getting Lost isn’t like any Solnit I’ve read, that’s par for the course with this author. The book is broken into nine pieces. Five of them are autobiographical accounts in which Solnit interprets her youth, all the while borrowing freely from high culture (Plato’s Meno) and low culture (Vertigo), the natural world (desert tortoises), and American history (Lewis and Clark). The other four pieces are all entitled “The Blue of Distance” (they’re alternated with the other five) and in these Solnit explores previous artists, writers, and explorers who stubbornly chased the horizon, many of whom developed an odd fixation with the color blue in the process.
Given this, it’s tempting to say that Solnit is on the one hand tracing her own path of becoming lost as an adolescent and finding herself as an adult, and on the other delving into how a properly creative, curious adult never really discovers her true identity. It’s tempting to say this, and I think it is correct to an extent, but I also think that saying this is all A Field Guide To Getting Lost does is selling the book short. In fact, I think it does both more and less.
More, in the sense that reading Solnit’s book (slim as it is) is like watching a thousand beautiful thoughts bloom. Solnit is a fan of jazz music, and it is entertaining to watch her riffing off from one idea to the other like the musicians she enjoys.
However, the letdown with Solnit’s book is that these pieces don’t always come off right. Solnit seems to possess innumerable metaphors, examples, and digressions, but sometimes they are just too bewildering. It may be interesting to speculate why Solnit has, for example, juxtaposed an impressionistic story of her love affair with a desert hermit with a close reading of Vertigo, but it would have been a better read if she’d given some indication of her logic for doing so. As it is, we jump from hermit to Hitchcock with too much suddenness. This may exemplify the dislocation Solnit is trying to reveal to us, but this comes at a loss of too much consistency.
A Field Guide to Getting Lost does have some nice pieces that are certainly worth reading, but readers looking for something more substantial and satisfying would do well to look elsewhere in Solnit’s oeuvre.
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