Walking (and Reading) the World

Last week, I came across something that really struck me. A journalist named Paul Salopek is going to spend 7 years walking 21,000 miles (34,000 kms) from Ethiopia’s Great Rift Valley to the farthest tip of South America. The trip aims to follow our own species’ global migration.

December’s National Geographic features Paul Salopek’s first major article from the journey (although you can follow more regular dispatches here). It begins:

Walking is falling forward. Each step we take is an arrested plunge, a collapse averted, a disaster braked. In this way, to walk becomes an act of faith. We perform it daily: a two-beat miracle—an iambic teetering, a holding on and letting go. For the next seven years I will plummet across the world.

This is a beautiful meditation on walking. While I don’t do it enough in my day-to-day life, I’ve always enjoyed the simple act of taking a long walk. Perhaps it’s a remnant from my childhood—many fond memories are of walks taken with Mum, Dad, or my sister. Or perhaps it’s something more basic—that humans are meant to walk.

When Mr S. and I travel, we usually end up walking around for hours. I find it one of the best ways to explore a new place—for really seeing, smelling, feeling, and connecting with a place and its people. The idea of walking across the world for 7 years is a wee bit too daunting (understatement of the century), but I can certainly understand its appeal.

Salopek explains why he is doing the Out of Eden Walk:

If you ask, I will tell you that I have embarked on this project, which I’m calling the Out of Eden Walk, for many reasons: to relearn the contours of our planet at the human pace of three miles per hour. To slow down. To think. To write. To render current events as a form of pilgrimage. I hope to repair certain important connections burned through by artificial speed, by inattentiveness. I walk, as everyone does, to see what lies ahead. I walk to remember.

I love those last two sentences—I walk, as everyone does, to see what lies ahead. I walk to remember. 

Living in San Francisco, a place with so much influence on the future, I frequently find myself longing to step away to consider the past. Perhaps that’s why I’ve been haphazardly studying this course on historical fiction (which I highly recommend, while simultaneously warning you about the reading load).

At the same time, I found myself following a train of thought that reading science fiction should be encouraged for those who work in technology. In fact, I discovered that there is an MIT Media Lab course on this very subject, with a syllabus that suggests certain books and authors for different technology subjects (surveillance, wearables, artificial intelligence).

Historical fiction is a genre I’m more naturally drawn to than science fiction. But what I realized, while following these two trains of thought, is that science fiction and historical fiction can be thought of as two sides of the same coin.

Historical fiction asks us to connect with the past, in a much more human way than, say, a dry non-fiction account. We connect with the characters, and begin to imagine what it was like to live in that time and place. In this way, we become much more connected to the past—to its lessons, complexities and shades of grey.

Science fiction can allow different versions of our future to be considered. All of the ethical dilemmas and unintended consequences of some technological advancement or societal shift can play out for characters that we (hopefully) develop an empathy for. This can allow us to really think about things before we go ahead and change the world in a way we might regret.

What I am trying to say is that Paul Salopek’s words can also be applied to reading: I read to see what lies ahead. I read to remember. 

Image credit: National Geographic

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