A Field Guide to Getting Lost

by Rebecca Solnit

Hardcover, 2005






A series of autobiographical essays draws on key moments and relationships in the author's life to explore such issues as trust, loss, and desire, in a volume that focuses on a central theme of losing oneself in the pleasures of experience.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Mijk
This begins well, draws you in and gets better, but by the end it collapses in on itself as Solnit repeats what has been said earlier in the book. Lyrical, moving and even profound in parts, but self-indulgent and vain others, inconsistency which undermines its achievements.
LibraryThing member jnwelch
Those of you who don't like reading poetry, please don't let the following bit put you off. It took me a while to figure out how to read A Field Guide Lost by Rebecca Solnit. Her writing is so exquisite, I found myself dwelling upon sentences and paragraphs and ruminating about them. Letting myself
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get lost, I guess she'd say. Then, as I mentioned to our brother Mark, I realized that her essays were like poems. They required that level of attention, and gave back similar substantial rewards. E.g.,

"Children seldom roam, even in the safest places. Because of their parents' fear of the monstrous things that might happen (and do happen, but rarely), the wonderful things that happen as a matter of course are stripped away from them. For me, childhood roaming was what developed self-reliance, a sense of direction and adventure, a will to explore, to be able to get a little lost and then figure out the way back. I wonder what will come of placing this generation under house arrest."

Getting lost, of course, is important inside ourselves as well as outside. We learn about her travels in remote parts of our country, and the world. "I leaned over the side of the raft and stared straight down for hours at the floor of that river whose name almost no one knows that flows into another little-known river, stared at thousands of stones, hundreds of thousands of millions of stones sliding by, gray, pink, black, gold, under the clearest water in the whole world, floating for miles and days on water I drank straight out of the river."

Being willing to be lost means being open to whatever may come. She is fascinated, as most of us are, by the exploration of the wild American west. "The vast spaces of the American West, so little known to immigrants even now, have always invited travelers to lose their past like so much luggage, and reinvent themselves." Mapmakers long portrayed California "as a huge island just off the west coast of North America, and the northwest coast of that continent remained undrawn, one of the last expanses of Terra Incognita to the Europeans mapping the world."

She casts a wondering eye in so many surprising directions. One of four essays she has entitled The Blue of Distance" covers, among other things, the artist Yves Klein; artists who disappeared or used themselves up at an early age; Rosicrucianism; judo;the color blue; the famous photo of Yves Klein "Leaping into the Void"; his obsession with painting with "International Klein Blue", a unique color he invented by mixing in synthetic resin, so that it would never lose its brilliance; immaterial paintings bought and sold - that is, nothing but an incorporeal concept sold for money, and the receipt burned; maps in the 1500s; the map of Las Vegas that has to be regularly changed because the city grows so fast; Borges; Ptolemy; and, of course, more. The ending of that essay dazzled me:

"Movies are made out of darkness as well as light; it is the surpassingly brief intervals of darkness between each luminous still image that make it possible to assemble the many images into one moving picture. Without that darkness, there would be only a blur. Which is to say that a full-length movie consists of half an hour or an hour of pure darkness that goes unseen. If you could add up all the darkness, you would find the audience in the theater gazing together at a deep imaginative night. It is the terra incognita of film, the dark continent on every map. In a similar way, a runner's every step is a leap, so that for a moment he or she is entirely off the ground. For those brief instants, shadows no longer spill from their feet, like leaks, but hover below them like doubles, as they do with birds, whose shadows crawl below them, caressing the surface of the earth, growing and shrinking as their makers move nearer or farther from that surface. For my friends who run long distances, these tiny fragments of levitation add up to something considerable, by their own power they hover above the earth for many minutes, perhaps some significant portion of an hour or perhaps far more for the hundred-mile races. We fly; we dream in darkness; we devour heaven in bites too small to be measured."

There's an old exclamation for when one sees something striking and unexpected: "Will wonders never cease?" If that's taken as a question, the answer is, if the sense of wonder never ceases, then wonders won't either.
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LibraryThing member idlereader
discursive exploration of what it is to be lost, how it's something that humans seem to have lost their sense of.
LibraryThing member colinsky
I really wanted to like this book based on its title alone, and perhaps that was what spoiled it for me. There was much discussion of space, most of it metaphorical rather than physical, but with lots of brave attempts to draw meandering lines between the two. In the end, it was the meandering that
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got to me. Like clang associations of schizophrenics, I got the feeling that she sometimes went from rabbithole to rabbithole just because of the layout of the terrain she found herself in rather than because of any particularly strong underlying theme. Yes, in life, we drift through space and time. It's unavoidable. She puts it in a pretty way, but I don't feel as though I've learned much. As so often, when I find a book that purports to connect to the things that interest me the most, my expectations become sky high and I'm almost always disappointed.
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LibraryThing member flydodofly
Almost unlimited amount of interesting idea bits and pieces and images to work your mind around, without any intention to structure them - the whole point was to allow oneself to get lost and stay lost. Solnit lost me more than a couple of times, but then I picked the path or the story up and all
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was well again.
"Worry is a way to pretend that you have knowledge or control over what you don't - and it surprises me, even in myself, how much we prefer ugly scenarios to the pure unknown. Perhaps fantasy is what you fill up maps with rather than saying that they too contain the unknown." P. 165
"It's okay to realize that life has a mysterious qulaity to it, it has an element of uncertainty, it's okay to relize that we do need help, that calling out for help is a very generous act because it allows others to help us is a very generous act because it allows others to help us and it allows us to be helped."
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LibraryThing member mahsdad
This was the second book in the Life's Library Book Club. It is a series of autobiographical essays, where Solnit expolores the subjects of loss, getting lost and losing one's self in the world, whether it be the wide open spaces of the American West, or the urban decay of New York. Not generally
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my cup of tea and not one that I would have selected on my own. But that's why I joined the Life's Library Club, its exposing me to new authors and styles that are outside of my comfort zone.

This was an excellent read and worth your time.
The simplest answer nowadays for literal getting lost is that a lot of the people who get lost aren't paying attention when they do so, don't know what to do when they realize they don't know how to return, or don't admit they don't know. There's an art of attending to weather, to the route you take, to the landmarks along the way ... to the thousand things that make the wild a text that can be read by the literate. The lost are often illiterate in this language that is the language of the earth itself, or don't stop to read it.

America was conquered, but not discovered, that the men who arrived with a religion to impose and dreams of gold never really knew where they were, and that this discovery is still taking place in our time.

Vacant lots like missing teeth gave a tough grin to the streets we haunted. Ruin everywhere, for cities had been abandoned by the rich, by politics, by a vision of the future.


S: 2/5/19 - 2/17/19 (13 Days)
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LibraryThing member deliriumslibrarian
A compassionate and evocative book about living now with the destructive history of then. Open to despair and yet alive with hope.
LibraryThing member DarthDeverell
In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit examines the differing ideas of being lost and how one finds one’s place in the world. The book is part memoir and part philosophy, examining moments in her own life as well as themes from historical and philosophical thought. She writes, “The
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question then is how to get lost. 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” (pg. 14). Furthermore, “Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing” (pg. 22).

Discussing the work of a historian, Solnit writes, “It could be best served not by claiming an authoritative and disinterested relationship to the facts, but by disclosing your own desires and agendas, for truth lies not only in incidents but in hopes and needs” (pg. 58). In her analysis of what it means to get lost and how we pass on these ideas, Solnit examines colonial captive narratives from Spanish North America and Puritan New England, dissecting both the loneliness their authors experienced as outsiders on a different continent and how readers interpreted the stories once they entered print. She writes, “Eduardo Galeano notes that America was conquered, but not discovered, that the men who arrived with a religion to impose and dreams of gold never really knew where they were, and that this discovery is still taking place in our time. This suggests that most European-Americans remained lost over the centuries, lost not in practical terms but in the more profound sense of apprehending where they truly were, of caring what the history of the place was and its nature” (pg. 66). This, according to Solnit, led colonists to impose an outside system upon the New World, importing names, foodways, and more to recreate the places they left and alleviate a feeling of being lost.

Discussing both the cultural drive to discover lost worlds and the loss of those places as maps filled in, Solnit writes, “Into the nineteenth century, people continued to seek places that had been made up out of imagination and desire. It had already been discovered that the magical Cibola, whose name appears above New Mexico in the old maps, was only Kansas, that Paradise was not located in Central America as Columbus thought, once he admitted that the topographies he had bumped into were not Asia. But even in the 1840s John C. Fremont claimed to be looking for the Buenaventura River that led from the Great Salt Lake into the Pacific” (pg. 166). Though she doesn’t discuss them, one can apply Solnit’s paradigm to the International Polar Year and the later International Geophysical Year, which helped to fill in the rest of the map and extend it out into space through events like the launches of Sputnik and Explorer 1.

Solnit concludes, “It is in the nature of things to be lost and not otherwise” (pg. 185). She gives the examples of lost languages, lost histories, and lost places. We know a great deal about Shakespeare’s plays but little about the author. We can see and study the Nazca lines, but don’t know their purpose or much about those who made them. Of her own historical writing, Solnit finds two purposes: “one was the historian’s yearning to hang onto everything, write everything down, to try to keep everything from slipping away, and the historian’s joy in retrieving out of archives and interviews what was almost forgotten, almost out of reach forever. But the other stream is the common experience that too many things are vanishing without replacement in our time” (pg. 188).
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LibraryThing member SonjaYoerg
I'm convinced Rebecca Solnit could talk about any topic and I'd be keen to listen. She is well-read and sensitive, and has a mind like a bird dog, picking up the scent of one idea, hunting it either into the light or into the underbrush before picking up the trail of the next idea and loping after
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it. What an intellect.

The book is about all the possible ways of getting lost, especially when getting lost is the only way to find something, or to be found. But I'd characterize the main theme as exploration. Not about questing after something (although you have to get your motivation somewhere), but about loving and respecting the wide-open world and the journey to get wherever it is you're going. If I'm making it all sound esoteric and theoretical, it's because I'm not as limber as Solnit. There is solid history in these pages and personal storytelling, as well as far-reaching theorizing. I appreciated all of it.

My one quibble was that the writing was occasionally denser than it needed to be. I found myself unpacking quite a few sentences. But I suspect this is how Solnit thinks, and if that's true, I wouldn't monkey with it.

A book for folks who believe a window can always be larger.
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LibraryThing member strandbooks
Earlier this year I was at a BookBar event where a staff member was playing matchmaker with attendees and books. I told her I had recently read Annie Dillard’s book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. It was not my usual read and pretty challenging but I loved it. She recommended A Field Guide to Getting
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Lost by Rebecca Solnit. The writing is similar in the fact that I underlined a lot of passages that were philosophical/poetic, and I’d like to read again. Unlike Pilgrim, this is a book of unrelated essays, which made it more disjointed. They flip from stories of adventurers in the 1500s to a very in-depth look at the movie Vertigo to the ruin of American cities in the 1980s. I also felt like I was expected to know a lot more about Solnit’s background and past books the way she alludes to them. I do want to learn more about her and what her other books are like.
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LibraryThing member LibroLindsay
Flowery and erudite in a way I found totally palatable, though there were a couple essays that didn't feel quite as strong. Mostly, though, this collection was pretty resonant.
LibraryThing member MarilynKinnon
Lent by friend on Soton course - rather an indulgent cult read, Jewish history explored in photos and memories but includes great pages on Spanish early explorers of US and Mexico - in a country they conquer but don't discover.
LibraryThing member quondame
Beautiful writing accompanies this set of meditations and anecdotes on getting and being lost, losing things and memories and maybe even minds. Of losing balance and yet, it is curiously luminously balanced and is really more about being alive in the midst of change, of even seeking change and its
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inevitable loses.
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LibraryThing member PDCRead
A series of essays and thoughts on the feelings associated with being lost or losing. I felt that that they were linked, but did not always have a flow from one to the other.

That said the writing in here is exceptional. Solnit writes with such a sense of place and purpose, and she is easily able to
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evoke a place or a time or a memory with consummate ease.
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LibraryThing member Paul-the-well-read
This is an engaging collection of essays, some quite personal, others dealing with various bits of history while still others offer intriguing biographical information about various world figures. While all of it is an interesting read, I found the essay entitled "Abandon" to be its most powerful.
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This essay combined biography with psychological insight to describe vividly the coming of age part of life. The essay feels as if the author reached deeply into her soul many times to finally find explanations for the time when her life, like those of most of us, turned from the innocence of its youth and set itself on the tracks that guide it through adulthood. It is moving with the feel of genuineness, offering an ethos and pathos seldom found in other writing.
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LibraryThing member Evelyn.B
So much food for thought. Will be reading more of Solnits work
LibraryThing member lethalmauve
A tricky collection that almost touches everything whilst also being almost everywhere, Solnit’s A Field Guide To Getting Lost melds cultural history with personal history. Although this makes the collection give off a sense of intimacy without revelling in overbearing nostalgia and
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sentimentality, Solnit wanders a lot, and I find myself at a lost, often thrown off by the vague link from here to there. But maybe this is the intention. Beyond the seemingly aimless wanderings and arbitrary tangents, it still manages to form a fairly cohesive whole not only by alternating each essay with a different The Blue of Distance (“Some things we have only as long as they remain lost, some things are not lost only so long as they are distant.”) each time but also with the fascinating and piquant quality of some fragments of history told. From losing a photograph to losing the old self, the portions about her friend Marine, French artist Yves Klein, how children are better at getting lost than adults, and those who were forced to leave their old self for the New World together with those who were enslaved by tribes without looking back at their old lives make a bent impression. It also reminded me of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, One Art. Solnit redefines being lost, getting lost, and losing something as privileges instead of the usual anxiety, despair, and heartache they are made out to be. But she does not neglect these either. And there is an eye-opening and appeasing comfort in that.
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LibraryThing member Sara_Cat
Unfortunately, I had to take a long break when I was about a quarter of the way through the book, so that disrupted my processing and enjoyment of the book. But, that being said, I did enjoy reading it. Even though it sometimes seemed to jump around from one thought to another, and even though
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there were things that I didn't quite agree with or fully follow, what I did quite like about the book is that it caused me to want to think more. And more than that, I felt encouraged to try and think differently about the world and things that happened to me and around me in ways I might not normally. I think in the future I'd like to either revisit this book, or many try another of this author's works.
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LibraryThing member viviennestrauss
Overall, I enjoyed this, I do admit to a bit of skimming in one chapter.


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