The Lost Art of Walking

A wide-ranging look at the unexpected pleasures of walking.

The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science, Philosophy, and Literature of Pedestrianism By Geoff Nicholson Riverhead Books 276 pp., $24.95

Writing about ordinary objects and quotidian activities is the latest trend in publishing. There have been books about fruit and death, about toothpicks and traffic. It’s squarely within this tradition that The Lost Art of Walking by Geoff Nicholson falls.

Such works are notable for the minute yet pleasing details that authors unearth about their subjects and there’s no shortage of them here.

Nicholson catalogues every aspect of walking: its origins, its use as a cure for various ills, expert walkers, eccentric walkers, walking songs, spiritual walking, walking on water, walking in prison, and the analysis of perfect and imperfect walks.

We learn, for example, that the Lambeth Walk (a jaunty strut that involves linking arms, raising knees, and occasionally shouting “Oi!”), was all the rage in prewar Europe.

The Nazis, however, denounced it as “animalistic hopping” when the musician behind it refused to swear to a lack of Jewish ancestry.

When a clever British propagandist later edited footage of German soldiers to make it appear that they were doing the Lambeth Walk, Joseph Goebbels, the mastermind behind Nazi propaganda, “ran out of the room literally kicking and screaming.”

When books like this are good, however, it’s because of their quixotic, passionate, and often monomaniacal characters and the remarkable variety of human experience that they represent. That’s certainly true here.

Take Edward Weston, “America’s most famous pedestrian,” known for such feats as walking from Boston to Washington in 10 days for Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural ball and walking backwards for 200 miles in St. Louis.

There’s also Captain Barclay, the Scotsman who, in 1809, walked one mile an hour for 1,000 successive hours to win a wager.

The book is varied, wide-ranging, and full of a dry and delightful wit. I found myself giggling every few pages.

Nicholson’s affection for his subjects and his gusto for walking are palpable.

Sean Hughes lives, writes, and walks in Seattle.

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