The Library: While Wandering, edited by Duncan Minshull

Review: Marcel Krueger

Next day I rose early, cut myself a stick, and went off beyond the town gate. Perhaps a walk would dissipate my sorrows.
Ivan Turgenew, First Love (1860)

When it comes to physical activity, I am hardly ever fazed by the fact that sweating and cursing on, say, a football pitch or in a gym smelling of old socks could be beneficial for my health. I prefer to exercise in an armchair, holding a book with one hand and occasionally raising a tea cup to my mouth with the other. The only exception I make is when it comes to walking. The reason for that may be that I come from a family of walkers: my grandmother, after growing up on a farm in the 1930s and crossing half of Europe after World War II, always spurned cars, buses and trains and preferred to walk, taking me on long hikes to chapels in the middle of nowhere when I was six or seven; my father and stepmother share a love for hiking the Alps, while my mother runs forest walks for the German Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union.

So, I was raised a walker and have always walked since. I was also raised a book lover, and soon started reading what others thought about my favourite  - and only - physical activity. I read Fontane and about his ramblings in Brandenburg, followed Josef Martin Bauer through Russia in As Far as My Feet Will Carry Me, and escaped over the Himalaya with Sławomir Rawicz in The Long Walk. Over the years, two books on walking have stayed with me, my copies now dog-eared and mud-crusted from many days on the trail: one is Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust, the other Duncan Minshull’s beautiful anthology While Wandering.

In this 400-page book Minshull has summoned 200 writers past and present from around the globe, all who have written about the act of walking. In here are novelists, poets, film directors; among them the Brontë Sisters on the heath, well-known flâneurs Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin, hiking veterans Robert Louis Stevenson and Bruce Chatwin, and psychogeographer Ian Sinclair. Some writers are represented in excerpts from longer works, some with poems, others with whole short stories like Edgar Allan Poe’s The Man of the Crowd (1841) or Daniel Boulanger’s The Shoebreaker (1963). Minshull has sorted all these excerpts topically, with chapters named “Why Walk”, “In The City”, “Tough Tracks”, or even “March Parade Procession” - all chapters posing questions to the walker that Minshull himself has answered in giving the excerpts new titles. Here an example from “Why Walk”:


I am told that when confronted by a lunatic or one who under the influence of some great grief or shock contemplates suicide, you should take the man out-of-doors and walk him about: Nature will do the rest.
Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World, 1922    

There are a thousand and one reasons for setting out, be they physical, psychological or spiritual. And that, for me, is the beauty of this collection (which, despite being in hardcover, has the perfect size for rucksack and duffel bags) - everyone who walks will find himself reflected in here, with all the positive and negative aspects the activity brings with it: setting out early on an autumn morning, the mountain trails waiting; the hundreds of impressions that even the shortest city stroll will convey; the misery of rain, blisters, and exhaustion. Even though I’ve read it over and over again, I know that whenever I open it anew will find something in here that connects me with other writer-walkers, reminding me that walking gives rise to thought, which in turn might lead to expression. Or sometimes just cursing on a hillside - which I prefer to cursing on a treadmill.  

As Robert MacFarlane writes in his introduction, “What I mean in sum to say is that this is the best anthology I know about an activity I cannot live without.” I do thoroughly concur.

While Wandering on the publisher’s website. Support your local bookshop!