A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit (2005)

Place has a prominence in memory and perception that accompanies life’s experiences and emotions, just as a smell or song can take you back to a moment long past that you recall in startling specificity. Place is embedded in our biography and plays an influential role in shaping our identity. In philosophy, human conception of place derives from perception, summoning the dual realms of mind and body. In this vein, Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, eloquently articulates the ways in which the world’s topography is inextricably woven in with life experience.

“Every love has its landscape” (118)

The book is an intricate collage of history, art, music, philosophy and personal reflection; all ideas harken back to the notion that location has more of an impact on your experiences than you might imagine.

The most poignant chapter for me was when Solnit discussed how the Blues developed as a musical genre from generations of slavery, segregation and oppression. That deprivation of movement contrasted with the matter-of-course free roaming of others pointedly marks how “even nostalgia and homesickness are privileges not granted to everyone” (123). As an avid traveler and American living outside of America, this sentiment rings hauntingly true. I was free to leave and I am free to come back. For those who birthed the blues and for many today, that is not their reality. When I left, the world opened up, as did my conception of home, but feelings of loss, nostalgia, homesickness and guilt arose – feelings only the privilege of travel affords.

Cultural metamorphosis as Solnit describes it, is like “the anguish of the butterfly, whose body must disintegrate and reform more than once in its life cycle” (81). This transformation exemplifies change, not for better or worse necessarily but in the name of progress and nature. “Perhaps change is commonly like that, a buried star, oscillating between near and far” (83). My transcontinental life, oscillating between west and further west, near and far, tinged with nostalgia and homesickness, has brought about an awareness and appreciation of presence, place, culture, language and most of all, family. This balance is best described by Solnit,

“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” (14)

Getting lost on purpose reminds me of Patti Smith’s repulsion of clock-time. It is a refusal to be bogged down by endgames and schedules and an acceptance of the days as they come. Time is something that, for the most part, you’d rather not think about at all; its passing, its meaning, the exactitude we’ve given it (thank you Switzerland!). Getting lost on purpose is roughly the same thing, not allowing yourself to be bottled up by routine. It is also something we can all do next Saturday.


What I underlined:

Perhaps it’s that you can’t go back in time, but you can return to the scenes of a love, of a crime, of happiness, and of a fatal decision; the places are what remain, are what you can possess, are what is immortal. They become the tangible landscape of memory, the places that made you, and in some way you too become them. They are what you can possess and what in the end possesses you (117)

There is a voluptuous pleasure in all that sadness (118)

As you step up to the ridgeline, the world to the west suddenly appears before you, a colossal expanse even more wild and remote than the east, a surprise, a gift, a revelation. The world doubles in size. Something like that happens when you really see someone (152)


Edition: Penguin Books 2006



  1. Hi, I love this review and the book was already on my list to read, now I must move it up. I think your “What I Underlined” section is so smart. You should add a follow button, so people can get email notices of new reviews.


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