Book Review: "A Field Guide to Getting Lost," by Rebecca Solnit

"All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost."

-- J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

A pre-Socratic philosopher, Meno, is said to have once asked Socrates -- "How can you know that thing, the nature of which is unknown to you? If you should meet it, how will you know it?" 

This question, and the search for its answers (for surely, there are more than one ways to explore the unknown) forms the backbone of this stunning set of essays, anecdotes, and personal musings from Rebecca Solnit, one of the most original minds on the planet today. A Field Guide to Getting Lost, collects together five such "maps," along with a few stories interleaved within the transition from one terra incognita to another. With a style that can only be described as "piercing compassion" towards Life, and all things living, Solnit charts out an unmarked course for exploring the dark, the unknown in the world, and within us. It is upto us to mark out the destinations on our individual wanderings.

Solnit argues the case for getting lost as opposed to getting lost, and the distinction between the two is a razor-thin line of human perception. Whereas the first allows for total immersion, losing oneself into the process of exploration, it maintains a deep trust for our natural instincts and our surroundings. Losing our self does not seem like a loss at all, when we stand to gain so much more in the process. On the other hand, being lost, in life, in thoughts, in our inactions -- is virtually wasting a lifetime that could be experienced in a much richer, fuller fashion. With anecdotes and quotes from other fellow travelers who have variously intersected with her path, she presents us with a multifaceted diamond-in-the-rough and challenges us to find our own way to polish it to a finality that can capture and reflect the brilliance of life's experiences. These are what she calls "real difficulties, the real arts of survival." And they can be countered with "a resilience of the psyche, a readiness to deal with what comes next." 

Solnit also touches on the fragility of human identity, with our obsession for identification with a certain class, culture or type of life that we are born or raised in. In one of the most astute metaphors, she compares this existence to that of the butterflies, whose metamorphosis from a caterpillar to a fully grown butterfly involves an active breakdown of its existing body into a new shape, form and function. Sometimes, she states, " ... we have to burn down that house, find our own ground, and build it up from scratch, even as a psychological metamorphosis."

Every chapter, every 'map' in this collection holds its weight as a mandatory reading, but taken together, the collection transcends the genre of essay-writing into something that should be an indispensable marker on our individual journeys!