25 Women to Read Before You Die

Wednesday, August 17th, 2005


A Field Guide to Getting Lost


Finding Nowheresville

A review by Anna Godbersen

There have been a lot of recent books cheekily titled, in old-timey, pseudo-scientific fashion, A Guide to, or A Natural History of, or The [Fill in the Blank] Notebooks, so you would be forgiven for not anticipating the glowing intelligence, the sublime quality, of historian Rebecca Solnit's A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Solnit's latest book has none of the gimmicky didacticism that its title might suggest; it is a loosely connected series of anecdotes, personal and historical, on the meaning of losing one's way. A Field Guide is too meanderingly rich a book to have a single, central tenet, although it can safely be said that it begins with a story in which the author, age eight, accidentally downs a little too much wine at Passover and senses some sort of mystery. From this experience she arrives at the lesson, "Leave the door open to the unknown, the door into the dark." And indeed, the work that follows seems to be ever passing through one door, pausing, and then finding another. Solnit talks to Borges and Benjamin, she visits with search-and-rescue teams, who "have made an art of finding and a science of how people get lost," she asks us to consider European explorers in the New World in an unorthodox way, as lost men who, in a few cases, gave up the familiar and stepped into a wholly different way of life.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost could be considered a very erudite sort of self-help book, dispensing, as it does, lessons such as, "fear of making mistakes can itself be a huge mistake." But it would be a shame to squeeze this book into a genre; it is a book brilliant in its connections and brave in its digressions. It is a book (of course it is) to get lost in.

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