Rebecca Solnit’s beautiful collection of nine essays, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, are a wonderful meditation on the transformations that take place when one gets lost. Whether it’s through travel, escape or internal disruption, getting lost is about new perspectives and interpretations, and often transformation.
Though not directly related to travel in Southeast Asia, these essays make an ideal companion to any trip as they explore ideas of distance, dislocation and discovery. Solnit launches the collection with an initial essay that includes a quote that has stuck in her mind: "How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is unknown to you?"
As only an assured essayist such as she can do, she then bounces across a variety of subjects, with the common thread being the idea of getting lost; at times the thread is so thin it would feel tenuous in less competent hands, but Solnit weaves it all into something fragile and wonderful. In anecdote, after fact, after pondering, after question, Solnit produces something far greater than the sum of the parts she puts together.
It’s harder, these days, to get lost, writes Solnit—and she was writing in the early 2000s, before smartphones were quite as ubiquitous as they are today. Children are more constrained in their explorations, and at what cost to their adult selves? Getting lost has many rewards and unexpected pleasures, and is a worthy goal of itself. “Never to get lost is not to live, not to know how to get lost brings you to destruction, and somewhere in the terra incognita in between lies a life of discovery,” she writes. A friend meanwhile sends her snippets of Thoreau’s Walden: “Not till we are completely lost, or turned round,—for a man needs only to be turned round once with his eyes shut in this world to be lost—do we appreciate the vastness and strangeness of nature. Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realise where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”
Life affirming, thought-provoking and immensely satisfying, these essays are at once relatable and challenging. From the emigrations of her own family members to the explorers of America—from the personal to the political, if you will—Solnit covers how people inhabit their world and what happens when their world becomes unfamiliar. Even travel through one’s own life is a concept worth examining in Solnit’s hands: “A person in her twenties has been a child for most of her life, but as time goes by that portion that is childhood becomes smaller and smaller, more and more distant, more and more faded, though they say by the end of life the beginning returns with renewed vividness, as though you had sailed all the way around the world and were going back into the darkness from which you came.”
So dive into this book; lose yourself in it. There will be signposts you recognise and some that you don’t along the way, but as she notes at the start, these are some of her maps. Eventually they will guide you to something new and exciting within the mind, an exercise just as important as physically getting lost. Which is something else you should do, of course.
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