Book Review: The Old Ways

The Old Ways:  A Journey On Foot, by Robert Macfarlane

This book was not quite as enjoyable as it could have been.  So long as I have my trusty cane at my side, I tend to enjoy a good hike.  Throughout the course of my life I have hiked in beautiful Appalachian countryside in Western Pennsylvania, to and from various waterfalls and other sites along the Historic Columbia River Highway, across international borders, up and around mountains in the Lake District of Northern England, and even in the jungles of Suriname, among many other places.  In many ways, therefore, I have a certain degree of fondness for the author’s interest in old ways, whether one is looking at foot travel or sea travel, both of which the author discusses in the course of this book.  Unfortunately, the author does not feel it sufficient to encourage foot travel alone but also finds it necessary to write about political matters and to make a political stance that supports rebellious behavior on the part of Palestinians against Israel, and that is the sort of political walking that I cannot consider myself a fan of.  Had the author stuck to walking and avoided such political grandstanding, it would have been a far better book.

This particular book of more than 350 pages is divided into four parts and sixteen chapters.  The first part of the book consists of the author’s walking along various tracks in England, including tracks, paths, the chalk ways of the ancient hill forts, and the silt that allowed the author to travel to an island just off of England’s coast, where he could ponder about Doggerland.  The second part of the book looks at the author’s paths in Scotland, including some paths by water that go to the islands off the coast of Scotland to the north, the difficulties of hiking across peat, as well as the paths of gneiss and granite that can make walking a challenge in different parts of the highlands.  The author spends the third part of the book wandering abroad over limestone, roots, and ice in such places as the Middle East.  Finally, the author examines the aspect of homing by pondering snow, flint, ghosts, and print in more paths in England.  After this there is a glossary, notes, select bibliography, acknowledgments, and an index of selected topics for those who want to find specific information about the author’s travels and the way he writes about them.

This particular book is one that depends on the reader’s opinion of the author.  As someone who enjoys a good walk myself, the author’s travels aren’t that impressive and much of the time he doesn’t even do anything that is interesting, merely recording the more interesting travels and perspectives of the other people he happens to be with.  The author also seems rather concerned with the materiality of his walking, what substances he walks over and the extent to which footpaths can be made over such surfaces, rather than in doing a good job in reflecting about the history of those places, which is why most people would care about the places he was hiking in the first place.  I would have liked to have seen less navel-gazing and more discussion about the lengthy history of certain routes and their popularity and use in the British isles over land and sea, and I could have done with far less of the author’s casual pro-Palestinian view.  When the author makes his own likeability and insight about walking such a key element of his text, it really hurts when the author just is not that enjoyable to read about and not one whose views about politics ought to be approved of or respected.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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2 Responses to Book Review: The Old Ways

  1. Catharine Martin says:

    I’m with you. The entire point of walking is the journey. Travel is about learning the history and viewpoints of those who dwell there, not invoking one’s own ideas on the land one trods upon or ruminating ad nauseum on the dead leaves, peat moss and dirt beneath one’s shoes. It sounds as though this author considered it a a weakness to admit learning what wasn’t know before. Sticking to the safe things leaves few relevant insights to the reader, which is a real shame–especially when so much more could have been accomplished, if he had just opened his eyes and mind. I’m saying these things not having read his book but trusting your review of it and by having read enough material written by intellectuals whose books were purely self-reflective.

    • Yes, I think it would have been better had he opened his eyes and mind, but some people walk that they might tell others about it, not so that they might learn from it.

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