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Books on one of the most basic (and important) activities

For most of us, walking is one of the basics of life: it’s a milestone in our development when we’re infants, the means to get from point A to point B, something mostly taken for granted… until, due to injury, age, or other incapacity, we have difficulty doing it. But walking is also an end in itself, one of the basic pleasures in life. The books in this list examine various aspects of walking – where we do it (on city streets, along well-worn paths, in rugged wilderness), how we do it, what we do while we’re doing it, and so forth – a kind of phenomenology and celebration of the human act of self-locomotion. 

Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit 

What does it mean to be out walking in the world, whether in a landscape or a metropolis, on a pilgrimage or a protest march? In this book, Solnit draws together many histories – of anatomical evolution and city design, of treadmills and labyrinths, of walking clubs and sexual mores – to create a portrait of the range of possibilities for this most basic act. Arguing that walking in history means walking for pleasure and for political, aesthetic, and social meaning, Solnit focuses on the walkers whose everyday and extreme acts have shaped our culture, from the peripatetic philosophers of ancient Greece to the poets of the Romantic Age, from the perambulations of the Surrealists to the ascents of mountaineers. 

For Solnit, the act of walking is key, but so is the context in which the walk takes place: the historical era, the natural environment, the social constraints/opportunities -- walking acquires meaning(s) by being performed in particular spaces, at particular times, by particular people with particular aims. She considers an expansive range of activities that have important social meanings and meaning for individuals: streetwalking, the pilgrimage, tramping through a landscape, military marching, the “walk down the aisle,” and the walking tour. Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord. 

In Praise of Walking: A New Scientific Exploration by Shane O’Mara 

Just as the title says, this is an enthusiastic paean in praise of walking – and a reaction against contemporary Western urban life, which is often lived without much walking, dominated as it is by the habits formed by suburbs, cars, and sedentary jobs. O'Mara examines how the character and design of cities affect how we walk, and how our walking affects our health and behavior – and, perhaps, our character. He investigates the benefits that walking confers on our brains and the advantages of this uniquely human skill: how the brain and nervous system give us the ability to balance, weave through a crowded city, and run our “inner GPS.” But the praise goes further still and includes the benefits to our muscles and posture, the protection and repair processes of our organs, the anti-aging benefits to our brains, the effects on our minds as our creativity deepens, our moods lighten, and stress eases its grip on us. O'Mara also muses on walking as an activity that significantly stimulates the mind and soul – as numerous thinkers have demonstrated: Socrates, Nietzsche, the Romantic poets, Rousseau, Thoreau – as the body walks, the mind wanders, which means creativity and mental stimulation. Finally, walking is often a joint activity, and is greatly conducive to building friendship and community, through paths shared, and paces adjusted one to the other. 

A Philosophy of Walking by Frederic Gros  

Just as you'd expect from the title, Gros looks at walking as a philosopher, with an emphasis on issues of identity and language. He considers our experience of the activity and asks: How is our identity changed when we walk? How does walking compare to other human activities? How does it require us to modify our patterns of thought and behavior? How do the places in which we walk (the countryside, the city) change the patterns of our lives while we are in them? He considers at length what he terms “micro-liberations” – “The walker considers it a liberation to be disentangled from the web of exchanges.” Walking (that is, going for a walk long enough so that the walk becomes the central activity of the day) liberates us from routine action, routine thought, routine choice: it separates us from routine, provides physical activity, and immerses us in out-of-the-ordinary surroundings (such as nature).

A Walking Life: Reclaiming Our Health and Our Freedom One Step at a Time by Antonia Malchik 

Malchik focuses more than other authors in this list on the collective aspects of a life with and without walking – how our landscapes have changed with the advent of fast-paced transportation and the environmental impact of widespread vehicle use in developed countries. When we don’t walk in an area -- a neighborhood -- we tend to neglect it: we fail to plant trees, to cultivate it, to make it beautiful. So she encourages us to build the important infrastructure of walkable community, which enriches lives and increases political strength, thus conferring benefits that are both individual and social. But beyond even that, Malchik details the achievement that walking represents for our entire species throughout time: walking is a peculiarly human activity, and an essential human one – it is makes us human, and in the course of evolution it gave our predecessors a distinct advantage over other hominids. 

Walking: One Step at a Time by Erling Kagge 

In this wide-ranging, soulful book, Kagge describes the way in which he experiences the world as he walks -- how the world becomes different, and how the more abstract elements within it, such as time and space, are affected by the particular perceptions that walking enables. Like several of the other authors in this list, he has high praise for walking in nature and sharp criticism of the ways in which modern urban life conditions our minds. Through many down-to-earth personal anecdotes of his own adventures, from a walk across Los Angeles to his polar travels, he renews the reader's sense of the quirkiness of walking, the imagined or felt or experienced dimensions of the activity, and the connections between walking and myriad other human activities and faculties.   

Walking by Henry David Thoreau 

"I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least -- and it is commonly more than that -- sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements." In this extended essay, Thoreau employs his exuberant and elevated prose – full of conviction – in the glorification of walking, or, more specifically, sauntering, an luxurious and rare activity that only vagabonds practice. Though he can sometimes be a bit of a crank (in a good way), his enthusiasm is inspiring: “We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return; prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only, as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again; if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man; then you are ready for a walk.”

More ambitious readers can borrow this excellent annotated edition of Thoreau's Essays, in which they will also find the essays "A Winter Walk" and "A Walk to Wachusett."