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Robert Macfarlane's Mountains of the Mind is the most interesting of the crop of books published to mark the 50th anniversary of the first successful ascent of Everest. Macfarlane is both a mountaineer and a scholar. Consequently we get more than just a chronicle of climbs. He interweaves accounts of his own adventurous ascents with those of pioneers such as George Mallory Robert Macfarlane's Mountains of the Mind is the most interesting of the crop of books published to mark the 50th anniversary of the first successful ascent of Everest. Macfarlane is both a mountaineer and a scholar. Consequently we get more than just a chronicle of climbs. He interweaves accounts of his own adventurous ascents with those of pioneers such as George Mallory, and in with an erudite discussion of how mountains became such a preoccupation for the modern western imagination. The book is organised around a series of features of mountaineering--glaciers, summits, unknown ranges--and each chapter explores the scientific, artistic and cultural discoveries and fashions that accompanied exploration. The contributions of assorted geologists, romantic poets, landscape artists, entrepreneurs, gallant amateurs and military cartographers are described with perceptive clarity. The book climaxes with an account of Mallory's fateful ascent on Everest in 1924, one of the most famous instances of an obsessive pursuit. Macfarlane is well-placed to describe it since it is one he shares. MacFarlane's own stories of perilous treks and assaults in the Alps, the Cairngorms and the Tian Shan mountains between China and Kazakhstan are compelling. Readers who enjoyed Francis Spufford's masterly I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination will enjoy Mountains of the Mind. This is a slighter volume than Spufford's and it loses in depth what it gains in range, but for an insight into the moody, male world of mountaineering past and present it is invaluable. --Miles Taylor


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Robert Macfarlane's Mountains of the Mind is the most interesting of the crop of books published to mark the 50th anniversary of the first successful ascent of Everest. Macfarlane is both a mountaineer and a scholar. Consequently we get more than just a chronicle of climbs. He interweaves accounts of his own adventurous ascents with those of pioneers such as George Mallory Robert Macfarlane's Mountains of the Mind is the most interesting of the crop of books published to mark the 50th anniversary of the first successful ascent of Everest. Macfarlane is both a mountaineer and a scholar. Consequently we get more than just a chronicle of climbs. He interweaves accounts of his own adventurous ascents with those of pioneers such as George Mallory, and in with an erudite discussion of how mountains became such a preoccupation for the modern western imagination. The book is organised around a series of features of mountaineering--glaciers, summits, unknown ranges--and each chapter explores the scientific, artistic and cultural discoveries and fashions that accompanied exploration. The contributions of assorted geologists, romantic poets, landscape artists, entrepreneurs, gallant amateurs and military cartographers are described with perceptive clarity. The book climaxes with an account of Mallory's fateful ascent on Everest in 1924, one of the most famous instances of an obsessive pursuit. Macfarlane is well-placed to describe it since it is one he shares. MacFarlane's own stories of perilous treks and assaults in the Alps, the Cairngorms and the Tian Shan mountains between China and Kazakhstan are compelling. Readers who enjoyed Francis Spufford's masterly I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination will enjoy Mountains of the Mind. This is a slighter volume than Spufford's and it loses in depth what it gains in range, but for an insight into the moody, male world of mountaineering past and present it is invaluable. --Miles Taylor

30 review for Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination

  1. 5 out of 5

    Paul

    Three centuries ago, no one was interested in mountains and other wild places. The land could not be cultivated, nor was there any point in possessing them and the people who inhabited these heights were considered a lesser human. They were considered no go areas. But in the middle of the Eighteenth century, this perception of the mountain began to change. The premise of the sublime, the balance point of fear and exhilaration that could be achieved when climbing, coupled with the sense that the Three centuries ago, no one was interested in mountains and other wild places. The land could not be cultivated, nor was there any point in possessing them and the people who inhabited these heights were considered a lesser human. They were considered no go areas. But in the middle of the Eighteenth century, this perception of the mountain began to change. The premise of the sublime, the balance point of fear and exhilaration that could be achieved when climbing, coupled with the sense that the mountains were much, much older than previously thought, meant that the great thinkers of the age became interested in the how and why they were formed. And so begins Macfarlane’s mountain adventure. He writes about the forces that make mountains and the glaciers that populate them. There is lot on our perception of them too, the overcoming of the fear that these immense heights can bring, the fixation of getting to the summit of these peaks. These beautiful peaks can be deadly too, the Alps claim one climber a day during the season, and less people die on Scottish roads than they do in the mountains. But those that conquer the peaks are shown the magnificence and beauty of the world beneath their feet. Macfarlane ends with an gripping account of Mallory and his obsession with the highest peak in the world, Everest. An avid climber and adventurer, who climbed various peaks including setting one of the hardest routes up Pillar Rock in the lakes. Starting in 1921, he was a member of three expeditions to Nepal where they explored various potential routes up the mountain. No one had tried to climb at this altitude before, and there were an number of fatalities and numerous cases of frostbite, before he returned in 1924 for the final attempt. On the 8th June Mallory and Irvine start for the final ascent. As they do a fine mist descends around them, and they are last seen moving along a ridge as the mist swirls around them. I have been meaning to read this book for absolutely ages. Macfarlane is one of my favourite writers, and I have read all hi others, but not this, his first. He manages to weave together the mindset of the people that climb these peaks with the cultural history and deep geological time of these places. The writing is lyrical, poetic and engaging, and he describes what he sees with beautiful prose so you can drink in he view too. But in that beauty is danger too; no climb, even in summer is risk free, and even though mountains can bring exhilaration to your life, they can claim it too. For me it is a solid four, not as good as his later books though.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Sarah O'Toole

    This book was so enchanting. It felt like being brought into another world with a fascinating multi-faceted guide, who was a mountaineer, scholar, nature-lover, avid reader and, most importantly, a poet. I couldn’t believe he was so young when he wrote the book. 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 love the way the book is This book was so enchanting. It felt like being brought into another world with a fascinating multi-faceted guide, who was a mountaineer, scholar, nature-lover, avid reader and, most importantly, a poet. I couldn’t believe he was so young when he wrote the book. 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 love the way the book is structured, all but two chapters exploring the different ways in which mountains can possess the minds and hearts of men. He manages to keeps a sense of the mystery of why people risk death to climb mountains by telling the story of George Mallory, drawing all these strands into a myth rather than a scholarly argument. We journey through the book as we journey up a mountain, witnessing the marvels of nature, experiencing our capacity for wonder, enjoying the archetypal sense of a journey in itself. He leaves us with a beautiful account of his encounter with a snow-hare in a snow-storm, telling us that at that time “there was no other place he would rather be”. I think Robert MacFarlane is one of my new favourite writers.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Jan

    It's a miracle that the ranks of people who have scaled mountains and rambled around hilltops count one of the most brilliant writers I have ever read -- a man totally perceptive to the impact that mountains have had on a human psyche, and also able to get across so richly the impact that they have had on his own. Robert MacFarlane cannot write two sentences without a stunning and meaningful turn of phrase, and his appetite for the vistas of nature matches the nuance of the historical research h It's a miracle that the ranks of people who have scaled mountains and rambled around hilltops count one of the most brilliant writers I have ever read -- a man totally perceptive to the impact that mountains have had on a human psyche, and also able to get across so richly the impact that they have had on his own. Robert MacFarlane cannot write two sentences without a stunning and meaningful turn of phrase, and his appetite for the vistas of nature matches the nuance of the historical research he has done. "Mountains of the Mind" is about one-third reflection on personal experiences, and two-thirds a survey of changing attitudes in Western Civilization toward altitude -- starting with Petrarch's moralizing view of mountains as an allegory for spiritual achievement and the Renaissance's disgust toward such unnatural and barren rocks and culminating in Everest as the final frontier of British Imperialism. There are plenty of stories about the immense passion of explorers for "stepping off the map," as well as the terror and despair of adventurers soon to become frozen mummies. My only issue with this book was a perceived lack of organization. At first, the author seemed to jump between different time periods and thinkers, and there did not seem to be persistently developed themes (or even chronology) until more in-depth discussion of the late British imperial era (touching on the colorful characters of the Great Game). The final chapters end up tying the disparate threads, making for a stunning resolution. It is difficult to imagine a better narrative of Mallory's failed 1924 attempt on Everest (as well as the eventual discovery of his corpse), as it encapsulated all the joy and pain and promise of mountains.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Radiantflux

    2nd book for 2019. The book, published on the fiftieth anniversary of the first successful climb of Mount Everest, attempts to provide a history and an a justification for why certain people have placed such a high importance on risking their lives for what can be seen as a fairly pointless goal of being the first to get to the top of a pile of rocks. The book ends with a detailed and interesting description of three early expeditions in the 1920s of the British climber George Mallory, which ulti 2nd book for 2019. The book, published on the fiftieth anniversary of the first successful climb of Mount Everest, attempts to provide a history and an a justification for why certain people have placed such a high importance on risking their lives for what can be seen as a fairly pointless goal of being the first to get to the top of a pile of rocks. The book ends with a detailed and interesting description of three early expeditions in the 1920s of the British climber George Mallory, which ultimately lead to his death in 1924. I found the writing in the book quite uneven, and lacking the overall poetry in MacFarlane's later and superior books The Wild Places and The Old Ways. While his accounts of his own mountaineering treks were entertaining, most of the history writing, barring the final chapter on Mallory, tended to drag somewhat. Overall, an interesting read, but not one of Macfarlane's best. 3-stars.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Joselito Honestly and Brilliantly

    Why do people climb mountains despite the obvious danger to their life and limb? This book attempts to answer that question. Many examples are given here but I’ll just pick one, that of George Mallory. He was just 35 years old with a young wife and three kids ages 6, 4 and a baby of 6 months. He was a tall schoolmaster of excellent physique, with writing ambitions and interests in international politics. In his first two attempts his group of mountain climbers had already suffered deaths and yet, Why do people climb mountains despite the obvious danger to their life and limb? This book attempts to answer that question. Many examples are given here but I’ll just pick one, that of George Mallory. He was just 35 years old with a young wife and three kids ages 6, 4 and a baby of 6 months. He was a tall schoolmaster of excellent physique, with writing ambitions and interests in international politics. In his first two attempts his group of mountain climbers had already suffered deaths and yet, fully aware of what could happen to him, he still went ahead on his third, and final, try to do what no one, at that time, had ever done before: reach the summit of Mt. Everest. He perished on this final attempt. He didn’t even reach the summit although his group had one, notable achievement of sorts: they were the first to discover a climbable path towards the very top of the tallest mountain in the world located at its so-called “North Face” (thus, maybe, where the now famous brand of outdoor gears and apparel got its name). George Mallory’s body was discovered only in May 1999, seventy-five (75) years after his death and disappearance. His widow would have been long dead by that time and maybe even his children, but the book made no mention of this, just a description of Mallory’s body which had been preserved in ice: “He (Mallory) was at an altitude of nearly 27,000 feet, face down on the steep shelves of talus on Everest’s north face, his arms flung up and out as though he had halted himself as he slid by digging his nails into the rock. “Mallory’s clothes had been torn from his corpse by decades of wind and frost, and lay in rags. But the extreme cold had preserved his body. His back still undulated with muscle beneath skin that was bleached bright white. Up there, his body had not putrefied, it had petrified—his flesh looked like nothing so much as stone. When pictures of Mallory’s corpse were released to the world’s media, many commentators likened it to a white marble statue. In death as in life, for Mallory had been a man of unusual physical beauty whose appearance provoked ecstatic comparisons with classical sculpture from the men and women who fluttered around him. ‘Mon Dieu! George Mallory!’ exclaimed Lytton Strachey famously after first seen him in 1909. ‘My hand trembles, my heart palpitates, my whole being swoons away at the words…he’s six foot high, with the body of an athlete by Praxiteles, and a face—oh incredible.’ Strachey’s twittery comparison of Mallory with a Praxitelean sculpture in white marble would harden, ninety years later, into a macabre reality.” He could have easily quit after his two failed tries, gone back to his school, to his family, wrote his short stories and novels, and watched his kids grow up and then die of old age. So why did he keep coming back to the mountain? Answering said question during a 1923 lecture, he said: “I suppose we go back to Everest…because in a word we can’t help it.” In a letter to a friend, he said: “Perhaps you will be able to tell me why I embarked on an adventure such as this?” And then there is this now immortal quote which he gave as an answer to a New York reporter in 1922 when asked why he keeps on returning to the mountain: “Because it’s there.” Clearly Mallory himself didn’t know why he kept on doing what killed him in the end. Certainly there was a promise of fame and fortune. Had he succeeded, he would have come down from the mountain a hero and a celebrity, his name forever etched immortally in the history of mountain climbing. But this could not have been just the reason because even up to now, after countless successful climbs by all sorts of people (even kids, the blind, old people and the one-legged), people still continue to climb it and dying either on their way up or on their way down. So, really, why? In a letter to his father in 1863, John Ruskin theorised: “That question of the moral effect of danger is a very curious one, but this I know and find, practically, that if you come to a dangerous place, and turn back from it, though it may have been perfectly right and wise to do so, still your CHARACTER has suffered some slight deterioration; you are to that extent weaker, more lifeless, more effeminate, more liable to passion and error in the future; whereas if you go through with the danger, though it may have been apparently rash and foolish to encounter it, you come out of the encounter a stronger and a better man, fitter for every sort of work and trial, and NOTHING BUT DANGER produces this effect.” Nietzsche, a more famous metaphysician of fear than Ruskin, had this famous line: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” What he failed to say however, based on countless experience, are two more indisputable truisms: One, is that “What doesn’t kill you now, may kill you tomorrow if you repeat it”; and Two, “”What didn’t kill the others and made them stronger, could very well kill you during your first try.” In the final analysis, however, it could very well be just instinct. There is that universal, unexplainable pleasure in being confronted with fear and danger provided you survive it. That is why some love to watch horror movies, do shoplifting, race cars or ride roller coasters. I read someone describe mountain-climbers as the “Conquistadores of the Useless.” And echo of this is found in the following quote in this book: “More recently, the mountain summit has become a secular symbol of effort and reward. ‘To peak’ is to reach the high point of an endeavour. To be ‘on top of the world’ is to feel incomparably well. Undoubtedly, the sense of accomplishment which comes from reaching a mountain-top has historically been a key element of the desire for height. This is unsurprising—what simpler allegory of success could there be than the ascent of a mountain? The summit provides the visible goal, the slopes leading up to it the challenge. When we walk or climb up a mountain we traverse not only the actual terrain of the hillside but also the metaphysical territories of struggle and achievement. To reach a summit is very palpably to have triumphed over adversity: to have conquered something, albeit something utterly useless. It is the imagined significance of the summit—which is, after all, nothing but a patch of rock or snow raised higher than any other by the contingencies of geology; a set of co-ordinates in space; a figment of geometry; a point without a point—which has largely given rise to the industry of ascent.” So, really, why do people make dangerous mountain climbs? You could very well ask why moths are attracted to flames which incinerate them.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Stephen

    What a stunningly good book! In an age of dodgy politicans, greedy bankers, money-grubbers and profiteers, Wayne Rooney, X-Factor and disposable junk culture in general, reading something like this is a total balm for the senses. The book is so obviously a labour of love for McFarlane and it is this passion for his subject that elevates(excuse the pun!)his writing. I really like the way he shares his passion with the reader. There isn't the remotest hint of showmanhip or a sense that he is writi What a stunningly good book! In an age of dodgy politicans, greedy bankers, money-grubbers and profiteers, Wayne Rooney, X-Factor and disposable junk culture in general, reading something like this is a total balm for the senses. The book is so obviously a labour of love for McFarlane and it is this passion for his subject that elevates(excuse the pun!)his writing. I really like the way he shares his passion with the reader. There isn't the remotest hint of showmanhip or a sense that he is writing a book to make a few quid. It's a complete history of why people became interested in mountains. Although it's only an interest that has developed in then last century or so, McFarlane traces this interest even further back to some of those wealthy English explorers of the 19th century who, at the drop of a hat, would try to scale soome of the world's highest peaks with hardly any experience and very dodgy gear. If you love the outdoors, in particular the high places of the world then this is the book for you.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Robert

    This book not only helped me to further understand my own fascination with mountains and mountaineering but also helped me to see the landscape and the pursuit in new lights, only furthering my love for mountains.

  8. 4 out of 5

    TienvoorNegen

    This was a hard book to read at the start. I'm a bedtime reader, and there were so many words I had to look up! Partly because of jargon and partly because I'm not as eloquent in English as I might have thought.  But then, this was a truly wonderful book.  About mountains, sure, but even more so about people. How their perception of the world changed in the last centuries and how the influence of the mountains shaped everything. Everything? Yes. Everything.  Geology, philosophy, writing, painting, This was a hard book to read at the start. I'm a bedtime reader, and there were so many words I had to look up! Partly because of jargon and partly because I'm not as eloquent in English as I might have thought.  But then, this was a truly wonderful book.  About mountains, sure, but even more so about people. How their perception of the world changed in the last centuries and how the influence of the mountains shaped everything. Everything? Yes. Everything.  Geology, philosophy, writing, painting, natural history, chemistry, physics, you name it, and this book lets you in on how it developed and changed humanities awareness of the world we inhabit since roughly the 1600's. By now, my slow reading was more by choice. I was savouring the passages I read, seeing the world through new eyes.  If you like mountains: read this book. If you like history: read this book. If you like geology: read this book. If you are a Romantic (the art period): read this book. If you are captivated by white spots on a map: read this book. If you want to read about a heap of travellers, mountaingazers and mountainclimbers, and explorers: read this book. I could go on and on, but I'd rather tell you to go read this book. Get it. Treasure it. It's wonderful and one of a kind. 

  9. 4 out of 5

    Jo Bennie

    A wonderful read that is not just for those who feel the need to climb higher and go further than others have gone before, but also for those like me who are content to learn about the seemingly contradictory addictive drive for glory and zen like pursuit of inner enlightenment that makes up that drive. This is not just a well written book about mountains, it is about how Western society has changed its attitudes towards mountains through history. McFarlane speaks of the early accounts of travel A wonderful read that is not just for those who feel the need to climb higher and go further than others have gone before, but also for those like me who are content to learn about the seemingly contradictory addictive drive for glory and zen like pursuit of inner enlightenment that makes up that drive. This is not just a well written book about mountains, it is about how Western society has changed its attitudes towards mountains through history. McFarlane speaks of the early accounts of travellers and revelations of Romanticism with its reverence for the sublime and wild, high and remote places. He speaks of our changing in understanding, from mountains as an antediluvian remnant to the current understanding of deep time and the enormous geological processes that have thrust mountain ranges up and the glacial processes that have worn them down. This is a truly wonderful book that, as with all of McFarlane's, pivots around the life of a man, in this case Mallory, the man who died on his third attempt to climb Everest, and his internal struggle between beloved wife and the drive to reach the summit.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Merry

    I think I haven't been this emotionally compromised by non-fiction since finishing Erebus: The Story of a Ship about the same time last year. I think it helps that I seem to be about as obsessed about landscapes, history, and polar exploration as Robert Macfarlane, and only slightly less about mountains. [More eloquent review to come eventually, I hope. XD] I think I haven't been this emotionally compromised by non-fiction since finishing Erebus: The Story of a Ship about the same time last year. I think it helps that I seem to be about as obsessed about landscapes, history, and polar exploration as Robert Macfarlane, and only slightly less about mountains. [More eloquent review to come eventually, I hope. XD]

  11. 4 out of 5

    Scott

    A superb and erudite examination of mountaineering and its history. Why we in the western world decided to conquer mountains, why we climb at all, is a question of myth and cultural vision. Extremely well written and compelling, it culminated in Mallory’s attempts at Everest. Rarely lags, well-paced, and deeply researched, I highly recommend to anyone who is interested in mountains at all.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Kiki

    This book is a collection of true stories about the fascination for mountains that men have had throughout time, written from the authors own perspective and passion for the topic. The author, a mountaineer himself, tries to bring the reader closer to understanding the deep and usually unexplainable longing one can have for mastering a mountains ascent. And for those mentioned in the book, even if sometimes nameless, it is a wonderful memorial. George Mallory is one of those men that died for hi This book is a collection of true stories about the fascination for mountains that men have had throughout time, written from the authors own perspective and passion for the topic. The author, a mountaineer himself, tries to bring the reader closer to understanding the deep and usually unexplainable longing one can have for mastering a mountains ascent. And for those mentioned in the book, even if sometimes nameless, it is a wonderful memorial. George Mallory is one of those men that died for his dreams and the chapter about his deep longing to conquer his specific mountain of the mind was deeply moving. Everybody in love with mountains should read this book.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Jason

    Really struggled with this at times, the geology parts and MacFarlane's personal mountain experiences were interesting, unfortunately there was not much on this, the bulk of the book was the history of mountain climbing and this is where I had issues. It felt messy, jumping about in time mentioning a bit here and there about a climber, quoting a bit from a book and chucking in a bit more of his personal experience. Things change when he gets to the chapter on Everest and he focuses on the one cl Really struggled with this at times, the geology parts and MacFarlane's personal mountain experiences were interesting, unfortunately there was not much on this, the bulk of the book was the history of mountain climbing and this is where I had issues. It felt messy, jumping about in time mentioning a bit here and there about a climber, quoting a bit from a book and chucking in a bit more of his personal experience. Things change when he gets to the chapter on Everest and he focuses on the one climber, much better writing then. Finally my favourite part of the book was the last chapter, "Snow Hare", this short chapter was what I was hoping to get from the book, a short bit about meeting a snow hare during a whiteout, reminded me of Nan Shepherd's writing, really shame there was not more like this in the book. This is the first book I've read by this author and it hasn't put me off his others books, I will give them a go.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Don

    George Mallory, who may have been the first person to climb to the top of Mount Everest, was asked why he was motivated to do so. This book answers the question, both for Mallory and for everyone else (the author included) who walks in mountains, be they less than 1000 metres or more than 8000 metres high. Macfarlane has produced a wonderful amalgam of biography, autobiography, science, social history, natural history, psychology, and so forth. This, his first book, displays his characteristicall George Mallory, who may have been the first person to climb to the top of Mount Everest, was asked why he was motivated to do so. This book answers the question, both for Mallory and for everyone else (the author included) who walks in mountains, be they less than 1000 metres or more than 8000 metres high. Macfarlane has produced a wonderful amalgam of biography, autobiography, science, social history, natural history, psychology, and so forth. This, his first book, displays his characteristically fluid, expressive, inventive, poetic prose - albeit in slightly muted form, compared with his subsequent Landmarks and The Old Ways.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Jim

    Hmm, yes, writing style. This boy was too learned and it showed. I'm not sure if he meant it too, but again I couldn't engage with his philosophising over mountaineering. Even while much of it was about Mont Blanc and Chamonix which is where I was reading it. I'm writing this about two weeks later and I'm buggered if I can remember much about the book at all. Another one lying under my bed with a hundred pages to go and an appointment with ebay looming before I get to finish it.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Joseph Schreiber

    This is a great book. Macfarlane is one of the finest natural history writers of our time. His is a perfect blend of the personal and the scientific/historical content. I read this book slowly, over the course of a few months, as a sideline to much of the other reading I was doing. The fact that I could put it down is not a negative, rather it was a book that I could grab when I needed something to read and be instantly engaged. I had no desire to rush and am sorry to now be at the end.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Will Blok

    This is one top book. I wish I'd read it before writing my dissertation on imaginings of (woodland) landscapes. He has an incredible knack for describing vividly and lucidly the minutiae of mountaineering, from the physical exertions to the way light bathes the landscapes. It's a beautifully written love letter to mountains the world over. The structure I'm in two minds about. It all leads up to Mallory's Everest expeditions - this is clear from the introduction - but I would say everything in be This is one top book. I wish I'd read it before writing my dissertation on imaginings of (woodland) landscapes. He has an incredible knack for describing vividly and lucidly the minutiae of mountaineering, from the physical exertions to the way light bathes the landscapes. It's a beautifully written love letter to mountains the world over. The structure I'm in two minds about. It all leads up to Mallory's Everest expeditions - this is clear from the introduction - but I would say everything in between is of less relevance. Brilliant content but it seems helplessly out of the blue when the Everest chapter starts up after the theoretical odyssey of Edmund Burke's 'Sublime' through to the dawn and turning points of natural theology. The account of the expeditions themselves is brilliantly concise, though, and packs in the finest details of those fateful four years along with the theories and concepts discussed beforehand in the book quite subtly woven in throughout this narrative history. I would like to read more of his work now, definitely. I was scared that it was quite Tim Marshall-y at times, in that it teetered on becoming a thorough amalgamation of historical sources without a whole lot of argumentation. However, Robert Macfarlane's writing exists beyond erudite but discursive renditions of wikipedia pages, perfectly balancing the what-did-happen and the what-those-happenings-mean. It's nice to have geographical writing which allows the reader to consider their own perception and positionality so thoroughly.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Peter Staadecker

    DNF so won't give a star rating - would be unfair. MacFarlane writes exteremely well about his own mountain experiences and his fascination with them. I would happily read more of his work if it adhered to that sytle. When MacF writes about the more obscure history of someone crossing the alps, say, in the 1400s his style becomes too dry for my taste though, or perhaps this type of history or this way of viewing mountains just isn't what I was looking for. While reading "Mountains of the Mind" I DNF so won't give a star rating - would be unfair. MacFarlane writes exteremely well about his own mountain experiences and his fascination with them. I would happily read more of his work if it adhered to that sytle. When MacF writes about the more obscure history of someone crossing the alps, say, in the 1400s his style becomes too dry for my taste though, or perhaps this type of history or this way of viewing mountains just isn't what I was looking for. While reading "Mountains of the Mind" I had to compare it to Wade Davis's "Into the Silence" which is also a meticulously researched mountain history. Davis's focus is much narrower - mapping the approach to Everest and the Mallory expeditions. It won't grip everyone either, because Davis goes deep into historical detail, but for me the Davis book was spellbinding while the MacF just didn't work for me. Glad that many other readers liked MacF though. To each their own.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Carl Barlow

    A study on the enduring lure of the mountain to the imagination and desires of Man. A rather fascinating book for its subject matter alone, and Robert Macfarlane probably gets as close as it is possible to get to a satisfying explanation as to why folk want to climb mountains. The best parts, however, are when Macfarlane allows the I of the author a little indulgence and he describes his own experiences exploring and climbing - his descriptions are so intimate, beautiful, and instantly involving A study on the enduring lure of the mountain to the imagination and desires of Man. A rather fascinating book for its subject matter alone, and Robert Macfarlane probably gets as close as it is possible to get to a satisfying explanation as to why folk want to climb mountains. The best parts, however, are when Macfarlane allows the I of the author a little indulgence and he describes his own experiences exploring and climbing - his descriptions are so intimate, beautiful, and instantly involving, that he easily manages the feat of putting his readers into his shoes. You are there breathing the cold air through him, watching the light play across the varying snows, suffering and thriving in the same magnificent solitude. If it's a subject that interests you, or even if you think it might interest you, it would be extremely difficult to find a better book about it.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Costin Nitsoc

    "Wonder is the first of all the passions," said Descartes. It's impossible not to wonder each time you go to the mountains. By their beauty, their mysticism, by the challenges they offer. Mountains have long fascinated and attracted people and this book tells the story of this fascination. "Mountains of the mind" is an anthropologic perspective of the place and role of the mountains in people's minds from the very old ages until today. Although sometimes it can get really boring to read variations "Wonder is the first of all the passions," said Descartes. It's impossible not to wonder each time you go to the mountains. By their beauty, their mysticism, by the challenges they offer. Mountains have long fascinated and attracted people and this book tells the story of this fascination. "Mountains of the mind" is an anthropologic perspective of the place and role of the mountains in people's minds from the very old ages until today. Although sometimes it can get really boring to read variations of the same ideas, I think overall the book does the job in explaining why we are fascinated by them and what's this powerful that kept pushing us to climb them. I really liked the chapter about George Mallory fascination with the Everest. A must for every mountaineer out there.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Louisa

    This is a beautiful exploration of mountains, and how they have been imagined across the centuries, and why people are drawn to them. Macfarlane is a wonderful writer (and has, by the way, a brilliant twitter account), although I think he overeggs his prose a little at times. There's also a great thread running through the book of a mountaineering trip he took to eastern Kyrgyzstan and the Inylchek glacier, and I was sorry there wasn't more about that. But his other books are definitely on my li This is a beautiful exploration of mountains, and how they have been imagined across the centuries, and why people are drawn to them. Macfarlane is a wonderful writer (and has, by the way, a brilliant twitter account), although I think he overeggs his prose a little at times. There's also a great thread running through the book of a mountaineering trip he took to eastern Kyrgyzstan and the Inylchek glacier, and I was sorry there wasn't more about that. But his other books are definitely on my list now.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Andrew King

    A really fine book looking at the history of the way we look at mountains, and of the love for climbing them. The writing is beautiful to the point of being at times almost poetic. Some phrases and sentences leap out to make you chuckle or cry. I found that after about two thirds there was a degree of thematic repetition which made it heavy going. However, the last two chapters are possibly the best. I am very familiar with the story of George Mallory but still found the Macfarlane take on the s A really fine book looking at the history of the way we look at mountains, and of the love for climbing them. The writing is beautiful to the point of being at times almost poetic. Some phrases and sentences leap out to make you chuckle or cry. I found that after about two thirds there was a degree of thematic repetition which made it heavy going. However, the last two chapters are possibly the best. I am very familiar with the story of George Mallory but still found the Macfarlane take on the story of the early Everest attempts very fresh and moving. Thoroughly recommend.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Tim and Popie Stafford

    Very leisurely, beautifully written look at the role mountains play in our communal (and individual) imagination. Macfarlane traces how, beginning in the 18th century, mountains went from avoided and ignored totems of unpleasantness to icons of beauty and freedom. He elaborates on this transition at considerable depth and length, with historical information and personal anecdote. His ultimate example is George Mallory, who became obsessed with Everest and ultimately died on it, leaving behind hi Very leisurely, beautifully written look at the role mountains play in our communal (and individual) imagination. Macfarlane traces how, beginning in the 18th century, mountains went from avoided and ignored totems of unpleasantness to icons of beauty and freedom. He elaborates on this transition at considerable depth and length, with historical information and personal anecdote. His ultimate example is George Mallory, who became obsessed with Everest and ultimately died on it, leaving behind his beloved wife and three children. ("Free Solo" is merely an update on this phenomenon.) Macfarlane's point is that mountains are less assemblies of rock and ice than cultural developments that exist in our minds. He himself is clearly exhibit A of someone ardently in love with the mountains, though he says he has stopped taking life and death risks.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Simon Slidders

    Not as good as Landmarks. It sagged slightly in the middle (or was that me) and only picked up with the attempts on Everest. He still writes very well.

  25. 4 out of 5

    J.

    Mcfarlane has written a book on the fascination with mountains and has provided us with a survey of the associative literature, history and personal accounts. He documents the changing attitudes of men to mountains. He tries to answer the question 'Why do people still go to mountains? He answers this by showing us images, emotions and metaphors. "The way you read landscapes and interpret them is a function of what you carry into them with you, and of cultural tradition. I think that happens in e Mcfarlane has written a book on the fascination with mountains and has provided us with a survey of the associative literature, history and personal accounts. He documents the changing attitudes of men to mountains. He tries to answer the question 'Why do people still go to mountains? He answers this by showing us images, emotions and metaphors. "The way you read landscapes and interpret them is a function of what you carry into them with you, and of cultural tradition. I think that happens in every sphere of life. But I think in mountains that disjunction between the imagined and the real becomes very visible. People die because they mistake the imagined for the real". The chapters are topically arranged. There is a section on the mystery of George Mallory and Irvine lost on Everest in 1924, 'to a New York reporter in 1922 who asked about his reasons for returning to the mountain: 'Because it's there.' He discusses Maurice Herzog's Annapurnna, Herzog's account of a 1950's ascent of Annapurna the first ascent of any Himalayan mountain over 8000 meters. McFarlane maps out the tentative beginnings of how man approached mountains. He discusses the views of scientists mapping the earth, the opinions of poets and artists. We hear from thrill seeker Coleridge and Darwin's account of hiking in Chile. He discusses Casper David Friedrich famous 1818 painting of the wanderer above a sea of clouds a romantic image of the mountains. Mcfarlane says it is symbolic of the nobility and admirability of standing atop a mountain. Edmund Burke's notes on the 'sublime' are included. As is Petrarch's writings. In the 17th century mountains were seen as scars on the earth. In 1768 a Frenchman summitted Mont Blanc but it was viewed badly. Mountains are used as markers, Tamburlaine's men picked up stones and placed them in a pile on their way to war with China then those who survived picked them up on the way back. Mcfarlane recounts a pageant of weird and wonderful explorers experienced and not so experienced. Maurice Wilson a Yorkshire man who attempted Everest in the early 1930's against the wishes of the Indian, Nepalese and English authorities got very far despite his inexperience. In the second half of the 17th century in Europe there was a new appetite for remote regions. Nations were busy filling in parts of the map. 17th cenury travelers would pay people to blindfold them and lead them through the passes in the alps. The romantic movement changed the way we think about mountains, Coledridge, and Shelley led the way. Geologists gave mountains a past. He also discusses the spiritual nature of mountains in the Judeo Christian tradition. Many religious pilgrims believe that climbing mountains is a way of getting closer to the gods. The accounts of exploration are interesting but this book is chiefly centered on cultural fascination rather than tales of daring do. This is a history of mountains not mountaineering which is an important distinction. In a nutshell why people came to the mountain and how they dreamed and desired it is McFarlane's chief concern. This is a geneology for how people thought about mountains not a list of statistics and dates. 'Mountains of the Mind' is a challenge to hubris. It speaks to our complacency that the world is made by and for humans. McFarlane juxtaposes the cultural history with his own personal accounts. Some reviewers are of the opinion that the personal stories were unnecessary but I didn't mind his own input and I felt that it was a nice diversion from the more academic parts of the book. McFarlane said that he was planning to write a novel but he has been encouraged by the recognition he received to continue working in this niche field. The writing is magnificent, he is a great prose stylist. If he did write a novel I have no doubt it would win prizes. I would even go as far as putting him in the same category as Nabokov and Banville. The only reason I am giving this 4 stars is that this is not a subject that I love but McFarlane instilled a fascination within me that has encouraged me to read more on the subject of exploration. An excellent read.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Nv

    I read this book exactly 3 years after I borrowed it, read the first few bits, then forgot about it, and never returned to its owner. It's no coincidence I've picked it up again now, and it is with thoughts of its owner that I've trudged through it this time to finish. I will not be returning it, for I will not be returning. Why do good men make the worst relations. The best case scenario is that he thinks the same of me. But as I've been led to believe so far, the only best case scenario that e I read this book exactly 3 years after I borrowed it, read the first few bits, then forgot about it, and never returned to its owner. It's no coincidence I've picked it up again now, and it is with thoughts of its owner that I've trudged through it this time to finish. I will not be returning it, for I will not be returning. Why do good men make the worst relations. The best case scenario is that he thinks the same of me. But as I've been led to believe so far, the only best case scenario that ever comes true is death. I was worried this might be another adventure-meal consisting of leftovers 'why do we climb, why do we face death, death is so real, death is so selfish, the pleasure of fear and the pain of the ones we leave behind' regurgitated by the moutaineer version of a footballer's post-match interview talking about giving 100%, playing for the team, never giving up, and thanks to the sponsors Pepsi, Jesus, and Santander Bank. It wasn't. Imagine Steven Pinker and Bill Bryson had a baby, trained it from birth to collect a treasure of climbing experience, and then trained it to write in the style of Steven Pinker and Bill Bryson because of course it would be adopted and not expected to automatically inherit its fathers' talents and... scratch all of this.. imagine Steven Pinker and Emily Dickinson had a baby, sent it to be raised by Bill Bryson and Reinhold Messner, only for it to die tragically in a mountain accident, so its parents, both biological and adopted, join forces to write a book in its memory. This is that book. Need I say more? I feel like I've said enough. Poetic musings about mortality, humanity, adventure and nature; the broad arc of historical narratives about mountaineering from Petrarch, Noah, through to the natural philosophers of the Renaissance, Enlightenment and Industrial Revolutions, the flow of our thirst for extreme nature into our culture, linguistics (sublime, superior, peak), the progress of the geology and philosophy of space and time, all combine to produce an adventure book that has 9 pages worth of sources. The mountains are a perfect backdrop to trace the romance of Natural theology: a 16/17th century European idea that scrutinizing nature and discovering/experiencing it was a form of worship. Secular mountain-worship from Rosseau’s Nouvelle Heloise extolling the alps, and then the transcendental romance of mountains in 1800s through John Ruskin, R.W.Emerson, H.D.Thoreau, and John Muir are all evident influences in many beautiful passages that observe the wilderness of the high places in exquisite evocative detail. Take the passage below on light, following on from the concept of Alpenglow (reflection of rising/setting sun off the snow). “Light in the mountains can be harsh and volatile, the dazzle and the flicker of a snowstorm in sunshine, for instance, like a flutter of blades; or the ostentatious splendor the extravagant son et lumiere show of a thunderstorm. On a bright day snow and icefields glow with a magnesium intensity, a white light so concentrated that you cannot look directly at it for long without the risk of searing your cornea. At dusk, light can take on a matt atomized quality as though it were composed of vast and visible photons. Mountain light can also be architectural. The spires and pillars of luminescence which certain cloud configurations build or the fanvaulting effect created when the sun shines from below and behind a jagged rock ridge. It can be visionary as when you climb above the clouds and the light strikes off the fields of ice beneath you and it seems as though there are brilliant white kingdoms stretching as far as the eye can see. There is the Midas light, the rich yellow light which spills lengthways across the mountains turning everything it touches to gold. And there is the light which falls at the end of a mountain day and unifies the landscape with a single texture. This light possesses a gentle clarity and brings with it implications of tranquility integrity immanence." The book spends a lot of time marking the mountain as an object of our ever-questing brain, accelerated by the Victorian ethos of bringing the empire home, leaving imperial graffiti of their names on features to show they’ve been there, like the Eddie Izzard flag sketch. It leaves one question hanging in the air though, or balanced precipitously on a cornice, where does that leave us today? Tibetans/Nepalis couldn't imagine Chomolungma/Sagarmatha (a goddess) being named after a man, George Everest, and he only oversaw the GTS that calculated its height. The obsession with discovering the new might have started in Enlightenment and Romantic periods where railroads and telegraph were making the world smaller than ever, and it seemed like the days of Herodotus and Ulysses were gone forever. But while children make their bedrooms a large adventure, we've all but run out of them. That leaves us with the pioneering mountaineers of our time clambering for unclimbed peaks, but the logistics of these achievements call for some depressingly relevant cynicism. Climbing in the Kyrgyz, a Russian guide says they can be choppered into the adjoining valley and bang out 4 unclimbed peaks in a week. Of course we'd respect this less than Alexander Humboldt or Captain Scott. Yet snow replenishes itself, all the footprints wiped clean, making you the first ever. It is always untouched. This personal touch doesn't fully wipe away some righteous outrage from even me, staunch Western-apologist, about mountaineering as a hobby of the privileged. I have never seen a person of color in any of the Alpenhuttes I've been to. There is a distinctly uncomfortable sense of exclusivity in the most exclusive parts of the world, like a superior group from Atlas Shrugged or the last ship bound for Valinor. The chest-thumping about the 'Western ethos' of adventure and exploration that the book briefly gives in to prompts the sort of strangely outraged reaction that I wouldn't have if it were an actual historian writing the book, like Charles Allen's Coromandel talking about various geological and historical surveys that mapped the history of India all carried out by the British under the noses of disinterested Indians. It doesn't help the author's cause that he claims the word pandit comes from the Indian spy-geographers created by the Brits to map out Afghanistan, called pundits. Yet all its interesting history and literature gets silenced as the last chapter chronicles the tragedy of George Mallory on Everest. The pacing of this book as it led up to this emotional last chapter felt a lot like Joseph Gordon Levitt's The Walk. A flurry of perspective, planning, experience, and research drive the story along on a wake of white noise that your brain gets used to, before suddenly all the characters disappear, and all the noise disappears, and then everything else disappears. Nothing remains but Philippe Petit and the wire, ominous strings remind you of the abyss below, and light piano notes keep you focused on the sublimity of the reach of man. Petit and his wire, Mallory and his mountain, piano keys bouncing off the wind like spindrift off a climber ahead. Even as Mallory heads off into the tropics, where the apparent mix-up in the fact that Malayan word for water is air makes perfect sense, he leaves behind his wife Ruth and 2 children in a love triangle with Everest that will consume him. Sailing to the third and last trip, they stand waving to each other for a long time, while the ship is stationary. After a while, Ruth gets tired of waving and just walks away. Mallory has a bad feeling about this trip, having visited Robert Scott’s widow, and for weeks after Ruth gets the telegraph telling her about Mallory's death, she continues to receive the last letters he had sent over from Tibet. "It is an extraordinary idea, that Mallory should have chosen to die as an act of artistic formalism. To return thwarted but alive would have been intolerable to him, far more artistic, far more aesthetically pleasing, to succeed or to die up there. And certainly, Mallory’s story has a purity of form or plot about it, which has contributed to its survival in the imagination. It is structurally a myth or a legend. Three times, the beautiful Mallory - brave Sir Galahad – ventures into the unknown at the risk of his life, leaving behind the woman he loves. Twice he is repelled, and the third time, returning despite his better judgement, he disappears into a cloud of unknowing." Would the idea of obsession have carried a different flavor if Ahab had sincerely loved the whale for its terrible magnificence.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Melinda

    Fascinating history of mountain climbing and the obsession especially of western Europeans with scaling the highest peaks in the world. I learned that it was Thomas Burnet, a Church of England churchman and philosopher, who studied and examined the surface of the earth and creation of mountains to the extent that he basically started the science of geology. His book, "The Sacred Theory of the Earth", published in 1681 began the examination of how mountains formed and how the surface of the earth Fascinating history of mountain climbing and the obsession especially of western Europeans with scaling the highest peaks in the world. I learned that it was Thomas Burnet, a Church of England churchman and philosopher, who studied and examined the surface of the earth and creation of mountains to the extent that he basically started the science of geology. His book, "The Sacred Theory of the Earth", published in 1681 began the examination of how mountains formed and how the surface of the earth is changing. Burnet was highly regarded by Isaac Newton, who corresponded with him about the scientific means by which mountains could be formed. This reminded me that William Carey, a Christian missionary and botanist, brought scientific inquiry to his work in India. Fascinating to see the scientific foundations of some branches of science that seem so well established now. The book is worthwhile to read, and I'd recommend it.

  28. 5 out of 5

    John

    An awesome amount of research underpinned an academic tome. Sadly the book missed much history as it overlooked or rather omitted the mesmerising and awe inspiring developments of the post Everest era. It lacked any obvious signs of love of the hills, and admiration for "the conquistadors of the useless". It had me reaching for my much loved copy of "The Shining Mountain" and "Mirrors in the cliffs", here I found inspiration and evidence of commitment to the hills and their challenges. Perhaps t An awesome amount of research underpinned an academic tome. Sadly the book missed much history as it overlooked or rather omitted the mesmerising and awe inspiring developments of the post Everest era. It lacked any obvious signs of love of the hills, and admiration for "the conquistadors of the useless". It had me reaching for my much loved copy of "The Shining Mountain" and "Mirrors in the cliffs", here I found inspiration and evidence of commitment to the hills and their challenges. Perhaps the author should have spent less time leafing through dusty histories and more thumbing through guide books

  29. 4 out of 5

    Richard Newton

    This is a wonderfully written piece of text. I enjoyed the start of the book, and I enjoyed the end. I like the style of philosophising about the mountains, and questioning why people visit them, walk on them and climb. The only criticism I have is that the material is probably better suited to a long essay than a whole book, and at some occasions I found myself getting slightly bored. However, all is forgiven, if for no other reason than MacFarlane writes so very well.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Michelle

    *2.5 Not really my thing. The subtitle reads 'A history of fascination', which it is, but it also reads as a history textbook or a very long essay. The subjects MacFarlane discusses are initially interesting, but he goes on and on about the same thing. I found it to be quite tedious at times, and skipped whole pages. I did really enjoy McFarlane's anecdotes and descriptions of his own journeys a lot; I would happily read a book about his adventures, but this particular book wasn't for me.

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