Books by authors imprisoned in their studies, grafted to their chairs, are heavy and indigestible. They are born of a compilation of the other books on the table. They are like fattened geese; crammed with citations, stuffed with references, weighed down with annotations. They are weighty, obese, boring, and are read slowly, with difficulty. Books made from other books, by comparing lines with other lines, by repeating what others have said of what still others have thoroughly explained. They verify, specify, rectify; a phrase becomes a paragraph, a whole chapter. A book becomes the commentary of a hundred books on a single sentence from another book.
An author who composes while walking, on the other hand, is free from such bonds; his thought is not the slave of other volumes, not swollen with verifications, nor weighted with the thought of others. It contains no explanation owed to anyone: just thought, judgment, decision. It is thought born of a movement; an impulse. In it we can feel the body’s elasticity, the rhythm of a dance. It retains and expresses the energy, the springiness of the body. Here is thought about the thing itself without the scrambling, the fogginess, the barriers, the customs clearances of culture and tradition. The result will not be long and meticulous exegesis, but thoughts that are light and profound. That is really the challenge: the lighter a thought, the more it rises, and becomes profound by rising — vertiginously — above the thick marshes of conviction, opinion, established thought.
— Fréderic Gros, A Philosophy of Walking
One of my readers told me about this book five years ago. She was trolling me. You see, “books about walking” had become one of my miniature themes here. I was amazed at how many books there seemed to be about the topic; you might think there would be very little of substance to say about it. I was also annoyed by how often the examples I encountered quickly devolved into shallow romanticism and signaling status. At the time, I saw “books about walking” as symbolic of the unfortunate intellectual tendency to feign profundity while stroking one’s ego. I rolled my eyes, and the years rolled on.
Recently, I came across a copy which I intended to sell. While flipping through it to judge its condition, I saw enough passages to pique my interest, so I set it aside to look through more carefully. I’m glad I did. I really enjoyed it. Like the ideal he praises in this excerpt, the short chapters are suggestive rather than declarative, poetic rather than pedantic. Again, there are only so many ways you can talk about the simple act of walking, so, like a good walk, the subject tends to meander into nearby associations — walking as it relates to artists and philosophers like Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Rousseau, and Thoreau, for example. These sidetracks are usually brief and interesting, although — speaking of light, rising thoughts — the impressionistic free-association can sometimes seem, well, a bit gaseous. As in, Hegelian. As in, after a couple paragraphs, saying to oneself, “Did any of that mean anything?” But I choose to be charitable and brush those instances off as “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” Sometimes you have to wade through some rhetorical weeds to discover an oblique insight, and there are quite a few of those in this short book.
It occurred to me while reading that this book is of a type that I hadn’t really conceptualized before: books that are useful for my own writing. Of course, with everything I read, I’m always on the lookout for ideas or passages that I can use as a springboard for my own thoughts here. But many books, while interesting, don’t leave me with anything to add. They have said all that needs to be said. I realize now that I value books which suggest, or even provoke, unexpected thoughts, and it seems that this isn’t a quality which can be easily predicted or harnessed. If I were to produce a list of books that meet my subjective criteria, I don’t think there would be any obvious common threads of genre, style, or subject. I would love to read more like this, but how would I find them? I suppose I can’t do anything other than what I’m already doing — put one foot in front of another, as it were, without hoping for any algorithmic shortcuts, keep my eyes and mind open, and be prepared for pleasant surprises.