Book review: Walking – One Step at a Time, by Erling Kagge

Walking, by Erling Kagge
Walking, by Erling Kagge
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Norway’s Erling Kagge is perhaps the quintessential explorer for our Google-mapped age. Having become the first person ever to reach the three “poles of inaccessibility” – the North Pole, the South Pole and Mount Everest – and the first to walk alone to the South Pole, he started to look for other, more esoteric challenges. If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading his fascinating 2015 book Under Manhattan, in which he explores the network of tunnels and sewers hidden beneath the Big Apple, I can thoroughly recommend it. Not only does it offer a fascinating insight into a world that very few people get to see (largely because very few people would ever want to) it also serves as a sort of manifesto for a new kind of exploration. Just because there are no longer any blank spots on the map, Kagge seems to be saying, it doesn’t mean there aren’t still countless hidden places that are worth exploring.

In this, he is probing similar intellectual territory to the English writer Travis Elborough, whose brilliant, thought-provoking Atlas of Improbable Places, published in 2016, offered ample proof that, while we may think we know everything there is to know about our planet, it is still full of startling, unexpected wonders, from underground rivers to long-deserted towns almost entirely submerged by lava.

In his new book, Walking – One Step at a Time, Kagge broadens the scope of his philosophical adventures to address the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other – its obvious benefits for physical and mental health, and also its centrality to our identity as a species.

This is, of course, a well-trodden literary path. Most obviously, there’s Thoreau’s lecture Walking – first delivered in 1851 and namechecked here by Kagge – which arguably set the parameters for all subsequent discussions with the line: “the walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise... but is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day.” More recently, in 2014, the French academic Frédéric Gros published his Philosophy of Walking, in which he offered a thorough survey of Western thinking on the topic, taking in the writings of Rousseau, Rimbaud, Kant and Nietzsche, as well as those of Thoreau. Gros’s most pleasing contribution to the sum of walking wisdom was that walking should ideally be undertaken at “a good slowness.”

“Days of slow walking are very long,” he writes, “they make you live longer, because you have allowed every hour, every minute, every second to breathe.”

So – does Kagge manage to add anything to the already crowded field of thinking about walking? Inevitably, perhaps, the book contains a lot of ideas that have already appeared elsewhere, but, thanks to the book’s fractured, non-sequential structure, Kagge does at least bounce around between them in an invigorating way. And in terms of original thought, he offers an interesting theory about how, just as walking made us the species we are today, our increasingly sedentary lifestyles could potentially, over many generations, turn us into a very different species in the future. Rather than Homo sapiens, where “sapiens” means wise or knowing, he wonders if we could become Homo insipiens – a nicely judged term, with insipiens actually meaning “unwise” or “unknowing” but also carrying an implication of insipidness or weakness, both physical and mental.

Walking – One Step at a Time, by Erling Kagge, translated by Becky L Crook, Viking, 178pp, £9.99