Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Colin Fletcher

My great books #5: The Complete Walker

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The Complete Walker III by Colin Fletcher

Note: I’m counting down my ten favorite works of nonfiction, in order of the publication dates of their first editions, and with an emphasis on books that deserve a wider readership. You can find the earlier installments here.

The other day, I mentioned my recurrent fantasy of selling my possessions, leaving home, and traveling the world with a backpack. For all the usual boring reasons, I never came close to doing it for real, and curiously enough, aside from a few minor exceptions, I was never even inspired to do the next best thing—I’ve never been a backpacker or hiker. This is despite the fact that Colin Fletcher’s The Complete Walker is probably the nonfiction book I’ve reread more frequently than any other. (There are several editions, all of which have their charms, but the one I’d recommend that you read for your own pleasure is the third, since it’s the longest and most comprehensive version that Fletcher wrote on his own.) Unlike certain other critics, I love the “Economy” chapter of Thoreau’s Walden precisely because it’s so fussily specific: Thoreau devotes so much attention to the balance sheet and homely practicalities of his little experiment that you’re almost convinced that you could do it yourself. Fletcher’s book has much the same appeal: it’s basically an encyclopedic survey of the subject of backpacking, particularly of the equipment involved, and after you’ve read one of his exhaustive treatments of packs, flashlights, or space blankets, you may not be ready to set off on your own, but you’ve been furnished with ample material for dreams.

The more I revisit The Complete Walker—and I seem to go through the whole thing, piece by piece, every couple of years or so—the more it strikes me as a genuine but unsung literary masterpiece, a model of clarity, wit, readability, and good humor. Fletcher worries here and there that his focus on the “how-to” comes at the expense of the “feel-how,” but the pages in which he attempts to directly evoke the delights of walking itself, which is inherently impossible, are rather less poetic and interesting than his finicky weighting of the merits of various brands of camping stoves, which I could read forever. And I often think of what Fletcher says after considering the arguments of those who say that you should never go backpacking alone:

But if you judge safety to be the paramount consideration in life you should never, under any circumstances, go on long hikes alone. Don’t take short hikes alone either—or, for that matter, go anywhere alone. And avoid at all costs such foolhardy activities as driving, falling in love or inhaling air that is almost certainly riddled with deadly germs. Wear wool next to the skin. Insure every good and chattel you possess against every conceivable contingency the future might bring, even if the premiums half-cripple the present. Never cross an intersection against a red light, even when you can see that all roads are clear for miles. And never, of course, explore the guts of an idea that seems as if it might threaten one of your more cherished beliefs. In your wisdom you will probably live to a ripe old age. But you may discover, just before you die, that you have been dead for a long, long time.

Written by nevalalee

November 6, 2015 at 9:00 am

What’s a minimalist book lover to do?

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Zen Hoarder by Mark Thompson

Every few months, I’ll get the urge to radically simplify. The house where I live is comfortable but modest, and I don’t feel as if my possessions are taking over my life, but I often wonder if I could take it even further. Thoreau’s example is the most famous, of course, but I also find myself thinking of the poet Chomei, who at the age of sixty built a house on Mt. Hino that was ten feet by ten, with no furniture except a small shrine, a desk, a bed of straw, some musical instruments, and a few volumes of poetry and music. As Chomei writes:

In such a place there is no need to keep the commandments, for there is no temptation to break them.

I feel a similar sort of longing whenever I see pictures of someone’s tiny house, or when I browse the photo galleries at the Minimalism forum on Reddit, in which the striving to reduce one’s life to its bare essence—which often seems to consist of a bike, a laptop, and a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—turns into a perverse kind of competition to show off the least number of belongings. (Reading many of the posts there, I’m reminded of the good sense of E.B. White, who pointed out that a life like Thoreau’s is much easier when you’re “male, unmarried, and well-connected.”)

Like most people, I use travel as an excuse to temporarily pretend that I’m the person I’d like to be all the time. I’ve always been a homebody at heart, but I did a fair amount of traveling in my twenties, and I took a lot of pride in packing light. A few days after I quit my job in New York to pursue my dream of becoming a writer, I was on a plane to India with nothing but a daypack, which was enough to see me through three weeks of train and bus travel from Mumbai to Karnataka to Goa. A few years later, I did the same on a three-week trip to Europe, which led to some suspicious questions from customs on the way home—apparently a single male going from Ireland to Italy to London with an Eagle Creek backpack and a shoulder bag has to be up to no good. These days, with a baby in tow, I can’t even get on the subway without a Sherpa load of equipment. But I still daydream about lighting out for the territory with little more than I can carry in the smallest backpack I own.

Walden Pond

But it isn’t going to happen, either at home or abroad, and it’s all because of the books. Since I don’t much care for the Kindle, for my trip to India, I took no fewer than five books—Shantaram, A Son of the Circus, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the nonfiction book Evidence of Harm, and a travel guide—and found myself obliged to lighten my load along the way: I deliberately abandoned Shantaram on the airplane, which was no great loss, and left A Son of the Circus on the end table of my tiny hotel room in Bangalore. For my trip to Europe, I brought a volume of the essays of Montaigne, cut into two pieces for easier handling, along with Emil Ludwig’s Napoleon and some paperback novels. I also tend to acquire additional books on the road. During my trip to London to do location work for City of Exiles, I scavenged stores for local true crime books, which I thought would come in handy for research, and came home with a bag that was bursting at the seams. If, as Colin Fletcher says, a pack is a house on your back, then mine seems fated to end up looking a lot like my library at home.

In short, I’ll never be as minimal as I should be, as much as I like to dream about the books I’d own if, like Chomei, I only had a single shelf. And that’s probably for the best. As much as I like looking at tiny houses, they always strike me as a little sad and incomplete without books, and I know that if I built myself a cottage, it would soon be packed with thrift store paperbacks. My life seems fated to be as cluttered as my brain, and even as I try to pare things down in other ways, I’ll never be able to give up my book addiction. It’s possible that these impulses are two sides of the same coin: the more books I read, the more I learn to value those few works of lasting value, even as my eye strays to the newest enticing discovery. And if the whole point of simple living is to allow for a complicated inner life, in my case, it’s inseparable from a bookshelf that’s the opposite of minimal. The result is a life that oscillates back and forth between simplicity and clutter. I may never be a true minimalist, but simplifying my life in the few ways I can lets me spend more time with the books I love.

Written by nevalalee

May 23, 2013 at 9:52 am

Colin Fletcher on walking and thinking

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Ten minutes’ drive from my apartment there is a long, grassy ridge from which you can look out over parkland and sprawling metropolis, over bay and ocean and distant mountains. I often walk along this ridge in order to think uncluttered thoughts or to feel with accuracy or to sweat away a hangover or to achieve some other worthy end, recognized or submerged. And I usually succeed—especially with the thinking. Up there, alone with the wind and the sky and the steep grassy slopes, I nearly always find after a while that I am beginning to think more clearly. Yet “think” does not seem to be quite the right word. Sometimes, when it is a matter of making a choice, I do not believe I decide what to do as much as I discover what I have decided. It is as if my mind, set free by space and solitude and oiled by the body’s easy rhythm, swings open and releases thoughts it has already formulated. Sometimes, when I have been straining too hard to impose order on the urgent press of ideas, it seems only as if my mind has slowly relaxed; and then, all at once, there is room for the ideas to fall into place in a meaningful pattern.

Colin Fletcher, The Complete Walker

Written by nevalalee

July 14, 2012 at 9:50 am

Turn off, tune out, drop in

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For most of the past decade, I’ve been wearing white headphones. I got my first iPod nine years ago, when I was a senior in college, and at the time, I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. (Today, it looks like a big brick of lucite, but that’s another story.) I’ve updated my music player twice since then, and there’s rarely been a day when I didn’t put on those white earbuds. I drive only very rarely and walk or take public transit almost everywhere around Chicago, as I did when I was living in Boston and New York, so the iPod and its successors have always been a big part of my life. But now, reluctantly, I’m starting to let it go. And I’m writing this post partly as a way of reminding myself why.

I’d been thinking about taking the headphones off for a long time, but it was only last week, when I saw the documentary Public Speaking, that I decided to do something about it. Public Speaking is Martin Scorsese’s loving portrait of occasional writer and professional raconteur Fran Lebowitz. (On her legendary writer’s block: “It’s more of a writer’s blockade.”) Lebowitz doesn’t own a cell phone, a Blackberry, or a computer, and seems vaguely puzzled by those who do. In the film, while miming someone texting furiously, she notes that when you’re down there, on your mobile device, you’re nowhere else, including wherever you happen to be. And much of Lebowitz’s own brilliance and charm comes from her intense engagement with her surroundings.

None of this is exactly groundbreaking, of course, but for whatever reason, it crystallized something in my own mind. For a while, I’ve been obsessed by the fact that every moment in a writer’s life is, potentially, a time that can be used for creation. A writer can’t be working all the time, of course—that way lies madness—but much of the art of surviving as an artist is knowing how to exploit what stray moments of creativity we’re given. Many of my best ideas have popped spontaneously into my head, as I’ve said in the past, while shaving, or while doing otherwise mindless chores like washing the dishes. I’ve quoted Woody Allen on this point before, but because it’s some of the most useful writing advice I know, I’ll quote him again, from Eric Lax’s great Conversations with Woody Allen:

I never like to let any time go unused. When I walk somewhere in the morning, I still plan what I’m going to think about, which problem I’m going to tackle. I may say, This morning I’m going to think of titles. When I get in the shower in the morning, I try to use that time. So much of my time is spent thinking because that’s the only way to attack these writing problems.

And walking alone, as Colin Fletcher and others have realized, is perhaps the best time for thinking. I’ve rarely had to deal with a plot problem that couldn’t be solved, all but unconsciously, by a short walk to the grocery store.  And yet here’s the thing: when my iPod is playing, it doesn’t work. Music, I’m increasingly convinced, anesthetizes the right side of the brain. Sometimes it can help your mind drift and relax, which can lead to insight as well, but for the most part, it’s an excuse to avoid leaving yourself open to ideas—which is unacceptable when you’re counting on those ideas to survive. So from now on, whenever I go out, I’m leaving the headphones at home. Not all the time, perhaps: there are times when I just need to hear, I don’t know, “Blue Monday.” But for the most part, for the first time in years, I’m going to try and listen to my thoughts.

Written by nevalalee

July 26, 2011 at 9:04 am

The art of shaving

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A few days ago, I quoted the unnamed physicist who told Wolfgang Köhler that scientists in his profession speak of “the three B’s”—the bus, the bath, and the bed—as the places where ideas tend to unexpectedly emerge. In my own case, two other activities are especially conducive to serendipitous thinking. The first, as my hero Colin Fletcher knew, was walking. While I don’t often have a chance to go on long hikes of the kind Fletcher wrote about so unforgettably, even a short walk to the grocery store has a way of working out whatever story problem I’m trying to solve at the moment. (Although I’ve also found that if I have music playing on my headphones, as I usually do, it tends to drown out that inner voice, which is a reminder that it’s sometimes best to leave the iPod at home.)

My other favorite activity is shaving. I’m not quite sure what it is, but I’ve had more good ideas at the bathroom sink than at any other location in the house. And I’m not the only one. In The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes writes: “A close friend of Einstein’s has told me that many of the physicist’s greatest ideas came to him so suddenly that he had to move the blade of the straight razor very carefully each morning, lest he cut himself with surprise.” And while I’ve never cut myself, at least not for that reason, I’ve certainly been startled by unexpected insights. The most stunning moment, by far, is when I realized the true identity and motive of the killer in The Icon Thief, for a murder that I had already described with an eye toward a different suspect entirely. It’s one of my favorite memories as a writer.

Not every profession lends itself to thinking while shaving. For poets, it can pose a problem, as A.E. Housman notes. I’ve quoted him on this before, but since it’s one of my favorite pieces of writing, I see no reason not to quote him again:

One of these symptoms [that poetry produces in us] was described in connexion with another object by Eliphaz the Temanite: “A spirit passed before my face: the hair of my flesh stood up.” Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act.

This is such an effective indicator of true poetry, by the way, that Robert Graves proposes it as the definitive test in The White Goddess, although authors seem divided on its consequences for a morning shave. In Pale Fire, Nabokov writes, in the voice of the poet John Shade:

                    …Better than any soap
Is the sensation for which poets hope
When inspiration and its icy blaze,
The sudden image, the immediate phrase
Over the skin a triple ripple send
Making the little hairs all stand on end
As in the enlarged animated scheme
Of whiskers moved when held up by Our Cream.

Later in the same novel, the mad commentator Charles Kinbote points out the inconsistency between Shade and Housman’s accounts, and notes that since Housman “certainly used an Ordinary Razor, and John Shade an ancient Gillette, the discrepancy may have been due to the use of different instruments.” Clearly, a controlled experiment is required, perhaps with a side investigation into Douglas R. Hofstadter’s self-referential number P :

P is, for each individual, the number of minutes per month that that person spends thinking about the number P. For me, the value of P seems to average out at about 2. I certainly wouldn’t want it to go much above that! I find that it crosses my mind most often when I’m shaving.

After years of experimentation, my own routine has settled, rather surprisingly, on an old-fashioned shaving brush and cake of shaving soap. I was partially inspired by Updike’s description of Harry’s shaving regimen in Rabbit is Rich (“He still uses a rusty old two-edge safety razor he bought for $1.99 about seven years ago, and lathers himself with an old imitation badger-bristle on whatever bar of soap is handy”) but mostly from simple frugality: a cake of shaving soap is cheap and lasts close to a year, at least the way I use it. My razor, at the moment, is a Gillette Sensor, the blade’s lifetime extended by occasional stropping on a pair of jeans. (It really seems to work, although reports of blades lasting for half a year or more are probably atypical. Two weeks is a good number for me.)

All in all, it’s a modest routine, but shaving, I’ve increasingly come to understand, is one of life’s joys, even with the simplest of tools. And it’s in those unassuming moments, when one’s mind is free to wander, that the best ideas often arrive. I think I’m going to try it right now.


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