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on 19 June 2017
As ever, Robert McFarlane's writing is beautiful and stimulating. I had not realised that he was a climber so this book combines two of his passions, climbing and wild places and a third, which I have now discovered is George Mallory, Another reviewer, Sarah O'Toole summed up my feelings about this book better than I can "His use of language to bring me into regions explored, read about and imagined often took my breath away, engaging all the senses and making me wonder what these marvels would be like to experience first hand." - I could never have climbed but I now feel I understand much Excellent.
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on 11 June 2017
sublime in every way
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on 18 June 2017
I have to admit that I have rather avoided reading the books of Robert McFarlane because I had the impression somehow that his writing style was too self consciously literary. I now see that I was wrong and that whilst he certainly is a stylish writer the writing is always used to get across his message and not solely to show off his undoubted command of language.
The key message, which may or may not be original but was new to me, is that the contemporary love we have high mountains and their surrounding landscapes (e.g.glaciers), together with, for a few, a willingness to risk life and limb amongst them, is the result of a change of attitudes that it surprisingly recent (roughly starting in the mid 1700s). The book essentially tells the story of this transformation, culminating in Mallory's fatal attraction towards Everest.
I think McFarlane does a good job in explaining how it is that people can willingly risk their lives to get to the top of a bit of land mass - but be doesn't remotely attempt to justify it. One suspects justification is a step too far for anyone.
A really interesting and thoughtful book.
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on 16 May 2003
This is a work of cultural history, blended with autobiography. It explains our fascination with high places and climbing, from several different perspectives. Thus the love of mountains is seen as a manifestation of specific aesthetic vogues and historical fashions; yet is also viewed from the perspective of the psychologist, probing the motives behind exploration and the somatic and intellectual cravings that mountaineering answers. The genre of the book is intriguing: it combines travelogue, personal history, fiction, narrative non-fiction and cultural studies, together with literary criticism and intellectual history. Yet it’s readable – very well written indeed – and engaging. Macfarlane has travelled widely, but, more than that, he has travelled thoughtfully. He is particularly good at describing the landscape and the facets of stones or the striations of the sky: he understands the responsibility of descriptive language to pay tribute to the things it describes, and there’s a kind of fetishism in his writing – a fascination with, above all, “things”. The epigraph to the book comes from the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Macfarlane shares Hopkins’s sense of “haeccitas” – the understanding of the “thisness” of what he looks at, a response to its immediacy that is expressed in vividly living language. Very highly recommended,
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on 5 June 2004
Every time there is a spectacular death in the hills, the old question starts up a babbling again: WHY DO THEY (mountain climbers) DO IT? The answers lies less in ``because the mountains are there'' -- and more, from the deepest psychological quandaries of ``who am I?''. Adventure jocks rarely talk in such metaphysical and existstential terms -- and clearly a good number of them have no time for MOUNTAIN OF THE MIND which has rightly turned to poetry and philosophy for both the language and cultural parrallels that ultimately humanises mountain mystique. I say humanizes... because the game itself is full of people wjho see themselves as more than human, superhuman, separate from the rabble. This is a terrific book.
The other great book that readers either love or hate becauise of its literary and philosophical references and explorations is Peter Hillary's surprisingly brilliant IN THE GHOST COUNTRY (written with philosopher and poet John Elder). It goes even further than MOUNTAIN OF THE MIND by adopting a powerful and sometimes intimidating language of myth and dreams to articulate powerfully the psychological and emotional frailties and motivations of men driven to the edge. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.
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on 12 June 2005
This book has been deservedly praised for the way it traverses a great deal of material with such elegance and elan. It retells some familiar stories in a fresh way and neatly blends cultural history with evocative descriptions of the author's mountain experiences. Although the central theme that landscapes are culturally determined is familiar and the format of these kind of cultural histories is now well established (Sprawson on swimming, Solnit on walking, Woodward on ruins etc.), the book never feels tired and the pace is maintained until the last page. MacFarlane is sure footed on writers like Shelley or Dr Johnson, stumbles a bit on art (Alexander Cozens was not a nineteenth century artist!) and is really in his element with anecdotes on Victorian climbing. 'Mountains of the Mind' centres on European attitudes in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, culminating in Mallory's ascent. This leaves a slightly disconcerting gap between the 1920s and MacFarlane's own recent experiences: it would be interesting to read how cultural attitudes have changed since Mallory's time. Although the mountains of Asia are central to the narrative, the cultural attitudes to mountains in Asia are not discussed. So for example, he doesn't discuss Hsieh Ling-Yun or Han Shan or the Western beat poets and climbers subsequently inspired by them. Then again, it's such a mountainous subject it would have been a challenge to include everything in one volume.
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on 26 November 2011
I was rummaging in my book shelves for something different and read this again in one sitting... The first time I read it was on a 2 week trek in the Himalayas and found it to be a perfect aticulation of human fascination with mountains. It isn't a 'I survived this' tale but a meticulous examination of consiousness in relation to a particular landscape, and reading it within that landscape clarified previously unarticulated awareness of this strange attraction. The book traces the history of human relationship to this landscape and illustrates with well or little known facts. The writing is fluid and poetic, a pleasure to re-read. This is surely a modern classic in nature writing (though I'm not sure it fits that neatly into the genre as his other books).
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on 18 November 2003
This IS one of the most absorbing books I have read for a long time. What is it with our fascination with mountains?
Macfarlane traces western man's fascination with mountains, charting the history of mountains and of the men and women who sought to conquer them. The book is worth the cost alone for the description of Mallory's three expeditions to Everest, here portrayed as a love affair that completes take over his life with disastrous consequences.
But this is more than just a history. This is an examination of fascination and obsession, a journey through the mountains of the imagination.
For anyone who walks or climbs in mountains this book is as Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust: a history of walking.
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on 28 April 2003
This is a work of cultural history, but a highly personal one - a book about why we desire to climb mountains, an account of attitudes to mountaineering and Romanticism, a partly autobiographical celebration of altitude, an essay in experimental narrative nonfiction. The author writes with poetic sensitivity, but is muscular and serious in his marshalling of hard facts. Think Simon Schama meets Francis Spufford meets Tobias Hill: wide-ranging, thoughtful, reflective, sometimes lyrical. It's a book for anyone who is interested in the relationship between art and nature, as well as for anyone who admires scholarship that blends intellectual rigor with lambent prose.
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on 25 July 2003
I came on line to write an independent review of this brilliant book, but then I saw the review by the reader from Fort William, and it made me rethink what I was going to say. First of all, it's important to say that this is top-class book; a totally new kind of writing about mountains. Second off, it's not just a book about mountains, but about how history works, why people behave the way they do towards different types of landscapes, how we think the world into being, and what issues like guilt, love and betrayal mean when looked at in historical and not just individual terms. in many ways, this is a book of philosophy and poetry, rather than a history of mountaineering, which is perhaps why some people - including the reviewer from Fort William - have been disappointed. It's obvious that Macfarlne isn't a top-drawer climber; he never says that he is in the book, and anyone who knows anything about serious mountaineering could tell he's not. So there's no secret, or misdescription there. The point is, I think, that eveyrone who goes to the mountains goes to them because, in some sense, they love the way they look, and so this book does answer the big WHY question.
This is all a bit jumbled. But, in conclusion: this is a very special book, in the tradition of writers like Bruce Chatwin and Barry Lopez in the way it works simultaneously with adventures and ideas, and in the way it thinks about the wild, physical world. READ IT if you love history, language or, indeed, mountains.
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