The Old Ways

The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, by Robert MacFarlane

You know I like travel, and also walking, and also The Old Straight Track (the original ley line theory book, which wasn't about energy or aliens at all, but theoretical Neolithic trade trails), and especially I like when all these things get together in a book about walking ancient routes in the British Isles.  This sounds like my perfect book!  I was very excited about it....

...and then I started actually reading it, well before my own UK trip happened.  I was surprised to find that reading this book was, well, kind of a slog.  Macfarlane goes to all these really interesting places, and talks with fascinating people, and yet this book was work for me to read.  He writes in this very poetic style that strikes me as self-conscious and overdone.  Here is a bit taken from a walk over the Broomway, which is--amazingly--a path out over the tidal flats of the east coast, just north of London.  It's really quite dangerous to walk; things shift all the time and there aren't landmarks, so it's just the sort of thing I want to read about, but all this wordcraft trips me up:
With the sun now fully out, each sand ridge carried its own line of light, running along its summit like an inlaid wire, and in each pool burnt a tiny version of the sun, a bright borehole to the earth's white core.  Our shadows were with us now as well as our reflections: the two of us had been four on the way out to the island, and we were six on our return, at once solipsized and diffused by the proliferating versions of ourselves.
I just want to read about walking the Broomway, dude.  I'm not sure I need a metaphysical experience at the same time.

Now, that said, MacFarlane visits a lot of really cool places.  He sails to a tiny island north of the Isle of Lewis, walks around Salisbury plain with an artist, hikes over Scottish rocks with a guy who makes...artifacts?...out of bits and bones, wood and water, and obsesses about Edward Thomas, a depressive poet naturalist killed in World War I and incidentally the man Eleanor Farjeon loved.  He hikes in Spain, the Himalayas, and in the Palestinian territory.  There's all this great stuff going on; I just feel like he's kind of standing in the way all the time, like he's the guy in the movie theater who won't take his cowboy hat off.  All the fancy words tend to get in the way of the experience for me.

Probably I'm a philistine who doesn't appreciate good wordsmithing.  Maybe you'll like it better?


  1. Hahahaha I don't think you're a philistine! I've definitely read books like that, where the author has a lot of interesting material to impart but is just maybe not perfect at conveying it in a concise way that focuses on what's interesting about the things.

  2. It's too bad the writing wasn't better, as author's exploits do sound interesting! Some authors are able to pull of poetic writing without coming across as overdone, but others . . . Not so much.


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