A 'Field Guide' to Losing and Finding Yourself Day to Day book critic David Kipen reviews A Field Guide to Getting Lost, a series of autobiographical essays by cultural historian Rebecca Solnit that touch on the process of finding -- and losing -- yourself.
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A 'Field Guide' to Losing and Finding Yourself

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A 'Field Guide' to Losing and Finding Yourself

Review

Book Reviews

A 'Field Guide' to Losing and Finding Yourself

A 'Field Guide' to Losing and Finding Yourself

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Day to Day book critic David Kipen reviews A Field Guide to Getting Lost, a series of autobiographical essays by cultural historian Rebecca Solnit that touch on the process of finding — and losing — yourself.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

It's time for our weekly book report. We all know you cannot judge a book by its cover, but can you judge it by the lack of a subtitle? Book critic David Kipen thinks, yes, maybe you can.

DAVID KIPEN reporting:

Almost no publisher takes a non-fiction book to market nowadays without a subtitle, anymore than a hiker would tackle the Matterhorn without an alpenstock. "A Field Guide to Getting Lost" is Rebecca Solnit's first book to enter the world subtitle-free, perhaps acknowledgement that after eight volumes of thrillingly venturesome art and nature writing, her name is finally becoming more of a draw than any unwieldy subtitle could ever be.

"A Field Guide to Getting Lost" finds Solnit in a more elliptical mode than we're used to from her previous books. Her last book, save one, was "River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West," an impressionistic biography of the photographer who first proved that all four hooves of a galloping horse really do leave the ground at the same time. Well, unlike that volume, the new book is a quicksilver thing, changeable as the Western deserts that Solnit attends to so closely. It all adds up to this indispensable writer's most personal book yet; alive as ever to subtle nuances of the natural world, but newly responsive to the promptings of her own heart and history.

Yet this is a book about the experience of getting lost, in the wild, in emotion, in reverie, and Solnit would be shortchanging her subject if she didn't sometimes seem a little lost herself. In its nine related essays, she alternates discursive pieces on childhood, family, friendship and love with a series of recurring meditations keyed to the color blue. These interchapters, called The Blue of Distance, offer a kind of base camp where a dazzled but weary traveler can return to prepare for the next ascent.

And Solnit's switchbacks can be astonishing. Here she is pulling off a breathtaking extended metaphor about lost love. Quote, "A relationship is a story you construct together and take up residence in, a story as sheltering as a house. You invent this story about how your destinies were made to entwine like porch vines. It's a shock to find yourself outdoors and alone again, hard to imagine that you could ever live in another house, big where this one was small, small where it was big. Hard to imagine building again. But you lit the fire that burned it down yourself," unquote.

Solnit is a writer to get lost in, even if sometimes she herself goes too long between looks at a map. The new book, with a subject so slippery as occasionally to seem no subject at all, makes greater demands on a reader than her Muybridge bio. That was Solnit on the rocks with a twist; the new book is Solnit straight, no chaser. Some who loved the earlier volume may find her new whiskey's kick too strong, too unrelieved, but for those readers who admire the play of Solnit's intelligence across any landscape, just the fumes from "A Field Guide to Getting Lost" can disorient you for days.

CHADWICK: The book is "A Field Guide to Getting Lost" by Rebecca Solnit. David Kipen is book critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and for DAY TO DAY.

And NPR's Summer Reading series helps you find the best novels and kids' books and cookbooks and more. And you can find our critics' recommendations, as well as some excerpts, at npr.org.

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CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. DAY TO DAY returns in just a moment.

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