travelling histories

Research, thoughts, links

Way back when

Last summer, during one of my periodic bouts of first-year aimlessness, I wandered into Cambridge town centre. I found myself on Trinity Street, carried along by the tourist herds, and eventually sought refuge in Heffers. Heffers, a bookstore, is a Cambridge institution, though it’s now owned by the Blackwell’s chain. Like any good bookstore, Heffers attracts people inside with tables piled with interesting books. Drawn in by the thought of spending my money (an unfortunate habit), I picked three books from three different tables and bought them.

There was some method in my consumer madness. The three books I bought were: Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit; The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light by Paul Bogard; and Big Brother by Lionel Shriver. The first book had stared seductively at me from bookshelves for years, it’s yellow-hued photo of a road disappearing over the horizon suggesting excitement and adventure. The second I had heard about, in the echoes of book review pages, or glimpsed on tables just like these, where I would read the blurb but go no further. The final book I had never seen before but, as it was written by one of my favourite authors I decided I could give it a punt.

The reason for my blog title is this: after I had read all three books, each apparently on a wildly different topic (walking, nighttime and obsession with weight, respectively), I noticed that all three spoke to a much deeper, underlying issue: the idea that something is missing in modern society and, if we only look backwards a bit, we might find it again. 

The defining feature of modernity is its compulsion to compare itself to earlier epochs, to other times and other places. To be modern is to more than contemporary. It is to be noticeably different from what came before. Theorists of modernity, such as Wolfgang Schivelbusch, have pointed to modernity’s need to vanquish that which came before. 

In Schivelbusch’s The Railway Journey ’that which came before’ was the miles that separated places from places, eaten up by the nineteenth-century railways. It was also the transitional spaces which separated the experiences of being a traveller and not. Schivelbusch points to the disappearance of railway station waiting rooms, as a kind of pressure-lock between the city space and the railway space, in favour of the smooth, frictionless motion of the station concourse.

Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust perhaps reflects these changes most clearly, as she writes about movement and travel in its most fundamental form: walking. Her title reveals the almost mystical ties between walking, step-by-step, footfall following footfall, and the landscape over which one passes. In fact, her first three chapters address this subject head on: one about her own feeling of connection to early human walkers and their fossils, one about her experience of a Californian pedestrian pilgrimage and one generalising on this very personal experience. In the latter chapter she writes about a car, a Cadillac, painted up as a pilgrimage spectacle and thus occupying a space between earthly automobile and higher callings. Of course, fitting with Solnit’s overall theme, the car, emblem of modernity, only becomes an object of this pedestrian spirituality when stationary, eclipsed in movement by the tortoise-like walkers. 

Paul Bogard’s book is most clearly a lament for the passing of an era. Reading his elegy for a time before the ‘ending of night’ as even he has known it is what got me thinking about the connections between these books in the first place. Bogard’s writing is an umbrella that ranges across topics from the health implications of night shift work and the difficulty of actually seeing in bright lights, to the declining nocturnal insect populations and city lights effects on migratory birds. But he saves his best writing for those moments when, like Solnit,  he expresses a deeper, more spiritual connection to his subject. He finds one such connection while stargazing in a Native American reservation; another while floating in the depths of night on a lake in northern Minnesota. For both Bogard and Solnit, there is an essential spirituality to human connections with the pre-modern world, whether expressed in undimmed darkness or physical contact with the ground, that modernity has swept aside.

My third book choice might seem to stand out from the other two, It is a work of fiction, by an author whose oeuvre has dared to face the challenges and monstrosities of modern life head on, whether they are divorce, adultery, terrorism or sociopathic school massacres. Yet Big Brother captures a similar sense of longing for a bygone age, just like Solnit and Bogard. Shriver’s book tells the story of a grown-up sister and brother. At the outset, one is living a quiet, respectable life in the midwest, the other clinging to the embers of his once-great fame in Manhattan. In Shriver’s telling, it’s modernity’s impact on the way we eat that shapes the characters’ lives, driving them irrevocably towards a crisis point. Food, its preparation, its over- or underconsumption, and its role in social interactions becomes the central focus of the novel, leading the protagonist the lament the decline of older, purer, more essential connections to what we eat.

This pining for an essentialised, pre-modern past characterises all three books. Each author has identified an issue with the present that discomfort’s them, whether it’s the increasing pace of life (expressed in the decline of walking); the 24-hour, all-consuming capitalist culture (expressed in the decline of diurnal living patterns); or the lack of authenticity of modern life (expressed in the rise of ‘artificial’ foods). And for each author, the remedy is apparently quite simple: the human portion of the world needs to go back a bit, to reclaim something that was lost. Unfortunately, as with many western narratives of modernity and apparently simple corrections, each of these tales relies perhaps too much on an essentialist idea of ‘others’: whether those others are pre-modern, non-westerners or just half-imagined versions of ourselves.

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