Arts Arts Editor Books Muse

Book of the Month: A Field Guide to Getting Lost

With Fresher’s week and the beginning of the new academic year fast approaching, Jenna Luxon reviews this collection of short essays talking all things change, loss and uncertainty

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Image Credit: Canongate Books Ltd, 2017

They say you get to where you are
going, by heading away from where you have been. I’m not sure it’s that simple.
What happens when you get lost? When you haven’t a clue where you’re going or
for that matter where you are. This is what Rebecca Solnit explores is her 2005
book A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Through nine short essays, Solnit
considers the many facets of loss from being lost both physically and
emotionally, to what it is to lose.

When you are in the education
system, September is a time of change. But usually, also a time of certainty.
The certainty that you will be moving up another academic year, that you will
be presented with a clean set of books, a new timetable, a fresh start. For
many of us therefore, the ‘will I/ won’t I’ waiting game that is finding out whether
you are going to university is one of the first times this predictability is
ever brought in to question.

Instead, the change that being a
fresher and starting university presents can also feel much like a time of
loss. In her book, Solnit writes that ‘lost’ really has two meanings. Losing
things is about the familiar falling away, while getting lost is about the
unfamiliar appearing. These are two processes very much at work when starting
university. Leaving behind the comfort of home, be it often only for ten weeks
at a time, you too leave behind a level of certainty (which if you’re anything like
me that will include the certainty there will always be milk in your fridge or
that you’ll have remembered to do the washing…). And equally the unfamiliar
appears. A new city with new people, you are dumped in to a flat with a group of
strangers and told to fend for yourselves. Whether your fresher’s week is a
blast or whether it is kind of rubbish, we can all agree that it is a pretty unsettling
time and that if you don’t feel even a little bit lost at some point during it,
you are probably in the minority.

In the first of her essays entitled
‘Open Door’, Solnit writes of a trip she once took to the Rocky Mountains and of
the conversations she had with the Mountain Search and Rescue team she met
there about the key to survival if lost in this dangerous environment. The team
told Solnit that surprisingly children that are far more likely to survive
getting lost from their groups in this harsh landscape than adults. That adults
are often times too proud, too embarrassed, too scared to admit they’re lost,
even to themselves. They believe that the way back is always just over the next
ridge or just around the next corner. Adults will refuse to stop and keep
walking, tiring themselves out and only getting more lost in the process. Children
however are less likely to stray when they realise they are lost; they do not
feel this same embarrassment. When a child is lost they will sit down and wait,
conserving their energy whilst also making themselves infinitely easier to
find. What Solnit concludes from the discussions she has with this team in the
Rockies, is that ‘the key to survival is knowing you’re lost’. A sentiment that
I believe stretches far beyond the confines of health and safety advice.

Like all of Solnit’s work A Field Guide to Getting Lost treads the
line between being relatable and giving a healthy dose of pretension perfectly.
It is thought provoking but not in a nearing existential-crisis kind of way.
Rather Solnit’s work manages to take the everyday experiences we all share and
pull something deeper out of them. She gives her readers the opportunity to
take a step back, to stop what they are doing and take a critical lens to the emotions
and experiences we too often ignore.

I did not read this book during my
fresher’s week. In fact, thinking back I’m not sure I read anything during my fresher’s
week at all. And indeed, I’m not sure I’d suggest anyone else does either. But
perhaps after the madness has died down and you can finally remember all your
flatmates names, you’ve worked out how to use the oven and can find your way to
Central Hall unassisted, then you should read this book. If ‘the key to
survival is knowing you’re lost’ then let us be clear, I am not suggesting you
curl up in a ball and wait for someone in hi-vis to come and save you. But that
if at some point during this month of change, our unofficial ‘second New Year’
as students, you find yourself feeling a little out of your depth maybe take a
leaf out of Rebecca Solnit’s book (quite literally) don’t simply ignore how you
feel, keep walking and hope the way out is just around the corner. Stop. Sit down
and admit you’re a little lost, for once you can do that you’re essentially
half way found.

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