You could no more write a comprehensive book about walking than about breathing or sleeping. But in “The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science, Philosophy, and Literature of Pedestrianism,” Geoff Nicholson -- author of more than a dozen novels as well as, most recently, “Sex Collectors: The Secret World of Consumers, Connoisseurs, Curators, Creators, Dealers, Bibliographers, and Accumulators of ‘Erotica’ ” -- means to try.
Fortunately, walking (unlike letter writing, watch repair, penmanship, jousting or non-digital photography) can never truly be “lost.” Like travel, walking is a promiscuous discipline in need of a tight analytical leash. Even reined in, pedestrianism is typically mere prologue for the writer’s interests: Think Thoreau on nature, or Walter Benjamin on the implications of getting lost in Berlin.
For his part, Nicholson seems interested in pretty much everything, devoting chapters to Los Angeles, New York, London, faith, photography, obsessives and freaks. And yet these interests seem somehow disassociated; an account of the relationship between pedestrianism and “music, movement, movies” warrants 27 pages, and no sharper point in sight.
Nicholson never lets us know how he defines a “genuine walking” scene. Funny walking styles are lumped together with serious, life-changing pilgrimages. A discussion of Erik Satie begets talk of Peter Sellers, Charlie Chaplin’s insured legs, a remark that Harry Houdini made about Buster Keaton and a bit of dialogue from “The Simpsons.” Going everywhere and nowhere, it’s the narrative equivalent of an afternoon spent circling the same block.
Nicholson claims that the “true London walker” is “usually . . . a he” (no explanation given) and declares Patsy Cline’s rendering of “Walkin’ After Midnight” to be “deeply problematic,” stating that “earlier, more prudish sensibilities than ours couldn’t imagine what any woman would be doing in the streets after midnight unless she’d become a hooker.”
The historical difficulty of women to navigate public spaces is an interesting topic that receives serious attention in Rebecca Solnit’s far superior 2000 book, “Wanderlust: A History of Walking.” Nicholson refers to Solnit as “oblivious and irony-free” -- a bit of misplaced vitriol.
He also faults Thoreau’s 1862 essay “Walking” for forever linking nature walks to a pre-packaged kind of “spirituality-lite.” Though clearly a stab at humor, blaming Thoreau for the New Age movement’s glorification of nature is just odd. William Hazlitt’s equally rousing essay “On Going a Journey” first appeared in 1822, heading a brief Romantic boom in the walking essay; the New Age movement has many forefathers.
This underscores the missed opportunity for Nicholson to discuss his theme more deeply. In lieu of a guided journey on the relationship between walking and spirituality, he presents a series of brief strolls and anecdotes about the Wandering Jew, walking labyrinths in prisons and the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. There is no overarching framework, save for the link between faith and people with feet.
Early on, Nicholson admits he’s “outside the loop of academic theory” and offers no “fancy way” to frame the connection between walking and writing, other than the old adage, “What could be more basic than a single step, more basic than a single word?”
Nothing, of course.
“Walking away is one of life’s greatest pleasures,” he writes, leaving a conference on psychogeography (which he defines as “a way for clever young men to mooch around cities doing nothing much”) before the main speaker presents. It’s a cute way to demonstrate a point, but Nicholson walks away while we are still chewing on the material.
Given how many current walking references he makes before leaving -- performance artists, “street” photographers, song lyrics, travelers crossing entire continents on foot -- one suspects that it’s the author, and not the act of walking, who is somewhat lost.