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Mountains of the Mind: How Desolate and Forbidding Heights Were Transformed into Experiences of Indomitable Spirit Hardcover – Import, 3 June 2003
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—Robyn Davidson, author of Tracks
“A compelling meditation on what draws man to risk himself to be on top of empty, dangerous crags, this is an assemblage of dreamers and athletes, the bloody-minded and crazed––all those proud and ultimately helpless protagonists who take on the lofty slopes of the mountains which are Macfarlane’s fascination. He has been up there and come back down through the foothills to offer us his thoughtful and gracious elegy, telling us eloquently the secret of it all, which is that no one can ever truly conquer a mountain.”
—Benedict Allen, editor of The Faber Book of Exploration
“If you have ever wondered why people climb mountains, here is your answer. Part history, part personal observation, this is a fascinating study of our (sometimes fatal) obsession with height. A brilliant book, beautifully written.”
—Fergus Fleming, author of Ninety Degrees North
“What a vertiginously skilled writer! This is a terrific exploration, abundant with sensorial nuance, of our human obsession with stony heights. Despite its apt title and the history of ideas that it expertly narrates, Macfarlane’s book really shows how the Earth’s mountains, cloud-kissed and implacable, steadily resist and refute the successive attempts of the human mind to scale them.”
—David Abram, author of The Spell of the Sensuous
About the Author
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- Publisher : Pantheon (3 June 2003)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 320 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0375421807
- ISBN-13 : 978-0375421808
- Item Weight : 581 g
- Dimensions : 16.43 x 2.82 x 24.31 cm
Best Sellers Rank:
#784,334 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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Although I have always enjoyed fell walking I am no mountaineer, and I tend to frown upon some of the risk takers, but I did find that this book helped me understand better why so many are tempted to the heights. Great read, and I look forward to receiving Robert Macfarlane's next book, out soon.
The premise of this book is, potentially, a difficult one. It's one thing to be a lover of the mountains and just 'get' what it's like being amongst the peaks, but it's entirely another to try to explain that over the full length of a book. Hence the mix of climbing history, geology, personal memoir and religion which makes up 'Mountains of the Mind', subtitled 'A History of a Fascination'.
I must admit that when I bought this book I missed the subtitle*, so I probably went into this read on the wrong foot. I was expecting (and looking for) a travelogue that would sweep me back up amongst the mountain peaks in this tiresome year of non-travel, but if I'd read the full title properly I'd have realised that this is more of a history of mountain attraction. Some of the history had me riveted (for example the chapter on Mallory's fatal attraction to Everest), but in other places I feel he got too caught up in trying to give a fully comprehensive chronological account of British climbing development. In my mind that's a different book, and I would have loved if he'd spent a little less time back in the 1700s and focused more on modern climbing. For example, what drives 20,000 people - many of them inexperienced tourists - to climb Mont Blanc every year, despite helicopters lifting on average a body a day from the peaks above Chamonix in climbing season?
That said, Macfarlane is both an explorer himself and a talented wielder of the pen, and overall I really enjoyed this book. When he wasn't bogged down in the extensiveness of his own research, Macfarlane's knowledge and passion for the mountains is translated into wonderful writing that brings you shivering to the edge of many a snowy precipice. His own climbing adventures were fascinating - in fact, I'd have loved to have seen more of those memoirs in place of some of the historical detail.
Despite my niggles (and again, my fault for going in with the wrong expectation), this book did teleport me back to the mountains for a few days, and has left me with a hunger for some further mountain reading.
* In my defence this book seems to have a number of editions, many of which have 'adventures in reaching the summit' as the subtitle, which is closer to what I was expecting.
The book ranges from scholarly examinations of how various literary luminaries reacted to and thought about mountains, to geology and natural history, to highly personal accounts of expeditions McFarlane has taken part in, interwoven with some thrilling tales of first ascents, desperate rescues, and the like. As a whole, it does hold together well, and some of the source material he uses from past writers is really interesting. McFarlane's literary background shines through as he elucidates on Shelley, Coleridge, Byron, and Goethe's responses to the Alps, as well as more expected Naturalists and travellers' accounts, before a final lengthy chapter where he recounts George Mallory's doomed attempts on Everest in the 1920s in the light of what he's already explained about mountains in the Western imagination.
If you're looking for a book about mountaineering, or some thrilling tales of derring do, there are better books than this. If you've already read a lot of those, though, and you want a more thoughtful book which really wrestles with the questions of what is so special about mountains and why are people driven to risk their lives climbing them, then this is a unique and fascinating read. I'm probably being harsh giving 4 rather than 5 stars, but I felt, if anything, that some sections felt a little light and the writer would have benefited from a bit more length to really build on some points. I'd have gladly have read another hundred pages.