Book Review: Sven Birkerts' The Other Walk

The Other Walk: Essays
By Sven Birkerts

Birkerts’ collection of essays, The Other Walk, is a compendium of acts of contemplation and the digressions of the mind. Just reading it has inspired the last couple of posts here on Roaming Cowgirl, where I have allowed a memory or an associative moment to have free reign of the page.

The essays in TOW are deliberate and thoughtful, as they roam across the subjects of family, friendship, romance, writing, and teaching. I have to confess that I bought the book on impulse three years ago at AWP, and never read past the first page. I’m sure I asked whoever was staffing the Graywolf booth about “essay collections,” as I was prone to do three AWPs ago, and this was the one recommended. When I cracked it open later in my room, I felt instantly weary.  I was in my own (frenzied) action phase and I did not have the patience for the contemplation of others. My eyes fidgeted over pages that lacked dialogue or natural history, and I shelved the book to read “later.”

But then at the most recent conference in Minneapolis, I sat in on a hilarious and engaging panel that featured Birkerts (plus three of my favorite writer-friends). Two days later, and at the gate early for a plane that would end up delayed, I saw him sitting alone. As I am still, and I hope not always, prone to do, I subsequently accosted him with vulture stories. (He later favorited a tweet of mine, so I don’t think all the carrion/disease talk did any lasting damage.)

When I first sat down next to him, I had to say (because deliberate lying is hard for me), “I haven’t read your book yet, but it is in the stack.” There’s no way to make that sound good. So when I came home, I moved it up several spots.

I’m so glad I did.

My current frenzy is one of inaction. I am stuck in place; there’s sometimes a squealing sound, smoke coming from under the hood, and the smell of burning rubber. There are days when I feel my heart start to pound for no reason. It would be misstating at best to claim that this book is a cure for anxiety, but it has helped me put my spinning mind into perspective, and as a result, to use.

Take the essay, “Schimmelpenninck.” In it, he starts out looking for a dented tin on top of a bookshelf in his den, and then this happens:

I never found it, but my charged-up idle investigating brought me right up against all sorts of things—I mean literal things, bundled letters, peculiar artifacts of completely mysterious provenance, like a tiny elephant figurine, and an ancient cigarette lighter that I was clumsy in disassembling—that I broke—and that had my father confronting me in a fury.

And just like that, it becomes an essay about his father, then a trip to Latvia and his grandmother’s stories.

Since I move so often, I don’t have a treasure trove of objects collected over the years on top of a bookcase. Instead, my troves must be self-contained and portable. One such stash lives in a tin lunch box with Kali-ma’s face on one side and the many faces of Shiva on the other. Another lives in a simple wooden box I made in fifth grade woodshop. I know very well the steps from cigarette tin to elephant to lighter that Birkerts describes.

In the lunchbox, for example, I can move from mysterious Honduran paper money (who do I know who has been there?) to limpet shells from a failed DIY mobile attempted during my first year of marriage, to four wisdom teeth from a college friend. In the wooden box, lives my name tag from mandatory 6th grade “outdoor school,” a plastic green cap from an orange juice bottle cracked open during an LSD trip in 1988, and a pencil that my father gave me when I was around 12 embossed with his name above the phrase “Wisely Aggressive” (including quotation marks).

What I mean is, there are whole books in those boxes.

I’m getting off topic. In The Other Walk Birkerts privileges the art of thinking about things, and in so doing, he says a lot about the lived life of a writer. The moments are rich in detail and the revelations, sharp—that he carves them out of otherwise quiet moments sitting in a chair, walking a well-known path, or organizing files, is a testament to his skill as a writer and reader, and the breadth of his writing career. Does it do the book a disservice to call it a writer and readers’ book?

I am a writer, too, and I often find myself thinking about things. This is an act that can easily appear to outside observers as “doing nothing,” and which is complicated by my lack of employment or permanent residence of late. I feel terrible for staring out the window while long minutes elapse. Sometimes, if I sit for too long, the squealing tire sound manifests itself, especially if productive writing doesn’t immediately follow the staring. Or, if I’ve been doing my thinking on foot, I might hear the almost-admiring “I wish I had time to run every day," which is another way of saying, "Is that all you did today?"

But much more than simply or grandly a justification for my own sometimes plodding sometimes distracted process, I found a kindred spirit in the narrative voice of The Other Walk, if a tremendously calmer one. Before I'd ever read any of his essays, I wrote this in a forthcoming piece: “I felt how the steps made my spine twist back and forth like a chain might, in a light wind. My arms swept heavy from my shoulders, propelling me forward. By concentrating on just that act of walking, I kept something else from happening.”

In the last essay in The Other Walk, titled, “Walk,” Birkerts writes: “I can feel my own rhythm start to lift me up and tune me to the swing of walking, that growing catch-pull connection between the body’s exertion and whatever is passing through my head.”

We are writing about very different moments, at different stages of our lives and careers, but this echoing connection between mind and body, between thinking about action and writing it, was like a hand reaching out across an otherwise empty space, and I was grateful for it.

Verdict: RECOMMENDED