Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost essentially is a memoir of the mind, an intense collection of personal essays about losing oneself intellectually, emotionally, physically, and psychologically. First of all, the author posits that getting lost “seems like the beginning of finding your way or finding another way.” She goes on to say that “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.” Finally, she refers to Henry David Thoreau. “Lose the whole world, he asserts, get lost in it, and find your soul.” Thus, in the opening essay of A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Solnit sets out the map for the range of soul-searching and soul-seeking explorations that will follow.
The extent of that range, and its philosophical touchstones, is both broad and deep. J. Robert Oppenheimer, Edgar Allan Poe, Albert Camus, Simone Weil, Dante, Socrates, Meno, to name only a few of the many voices that join with Solnit’s. She puzzles over the artistry of European and American painters and photographers, grappling particularly with the lost horizons of the color blue. From the experiences of continental explorers like Cabeza de Vaca, she turns to new world captivity narratives, wondering all the while about how their senses of loss became fresh opportunities for being found.
On a more personal level, Solnit muses about herself, her family, friends who have come and gone, the men in her life. I was particularly intrigued by the hermit, a man of the desert with a passion for animals. Solnit views him through a lens of love and loss that focuses clearly on how he and the desert were intertwined. “It was the vastness that I loved,” she writes about the land; “and an austerity that was also voluptuous,” she writes about the land and the man simultaneously. Obviously Solnit not only thinks deeply but she writes extremely well, with a keen eye for analogy and metaphor.
Besides a variety of western landscapes, Solnit also visits structures, architectural places and even imagined spaces like the childhood house she recalls in her dreams. For her, dreams are both a tangible and an intangible part of getting lost, and they play a key role in this book. But the dreams always lead to firmer ground. That’s what I like best about this book. Too many memoirs drift off into an egotism that can be self-flagellation or self-congratulation or a combination of the two. A Field Guide to Getting Lost escapes those traps entirely. Rooted in a real-world travels and firmly grounded by the deliberations of other authors, these smart, provocative essays follow the geography of Solnit’s mind in a way that will appeal to most readers. For those of us who like memoirs with some meat on their bones, with some gray matter overlaying the words, this book is a model of its kind. -A.R.
A Field Guide to Getting Lost 2006 and these other titles by Solnit: Wanderlust 2001; River of Shadows 2004; A Paradise Built in Hell 2010, are available in paper and/or eBooks.