A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

I loved Solnit’s Hope In The Dark, an argument in favour of action and against despair, which I read in the wake of the Trump victory, and resolved to read more of her work. As a traveller, even the title of A Field Guide To Getting Lostspoke to me, and, reading this as the KSRTC bus arched up into the misty hills of Munnar, I was captivated. It’s a thoughtful and wise book, and one that I think will resonate with anyone who seeks to go beyond what they know, to ‘leave the door open for the unknown’ and embrace discovery and transformation through getting wilfully lost in the world.

The book is a reflection on getting lost and on loss, in which Solnit, by background a cultural historian, weaves together her own thoughts and experiences with a rich patchwork of insights from across time and space. She wanders from Yves Klein to captivity narratives, from Renaissance painters’ search for blue to the drug overdose of a friend, from her supposedly ‘lost’ great-grandmother to the decade-long wanderings of Cabeza de Vaca. And yet somehow it doesn’t feel muddled. It’s a kind of wander in the best sense; you’re often not quite sure where Solnit’s taking you, but are happy to accompany her on a ramble, borne along by the beauty of the writing. You get lost in the book itself, and find unexpected treasures dotting the route: I was noting down all kinds of pearls on my (ironically, now sadly lost in the most prosaic sense) iPhone as I read.

Overall, Solnit shows that a willingness to get lost, whether in the wildness of nature, the shifting landscapes of a city, or the pleasures of solitary imaginings, is essential to discovery and transformation; to grow, we must embrace the unknown, to feel comfortable with the loss of control that this entails, to embrace contingency and uncertainty. As she says: “Never to get lost is not to live, not to know how to get lost bring you to destruction, and somewhere in the terra incognita in between lies a life of discovery.”

The book is hopeful and expansive, but also wistful, for loss is sadness too. Sometimes desire can never be fulfilled, such as the desire for the mysterious blue at the horizon, the ‘color of where you are not,‘ the desire for the faraway that vanishes as soon as you approach. Our awareness of the loss of the past, too whether it be in the absence of stories about ancestors or the dying languages of indigenous communities, shows how many moments, insights and cultures are lost to time, becoming once again ‘terra incognita’ on the map. Yet Solnit sees a beauty in embracing this sadness, this loss too: “the blue of distance comes with time, with the discovery of melancholy, of loss, the texture of longing, of the complexity of the terrain we traverse, and with the years of travel.”

This is a beautiful, soulful book that I think will resonate with many travelers and seekers of all sorts; Solnit is a wise, thoughtful guide to the joys of wilful surrender in the world, and the beauty of the prose alone is enough to make me seek out far more of her work.

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