Mountains of the mind: a history of a fascination
This is a brilliant book. Its central idea, that few other mountaineering books have touched on, is that what mountains mean is socially constructed. This is the ‘mountains of the mind’ idea. Which might sound like a strange statement. Clearly, literal, physical masses of rock and ice have not been ‘constructed’ through ‘social contexts’. Equally clearly, it is strange to say that they ‘mean’ something in an ordinary sense. A rock doesn’t ‘mean’ something in the same sense that the word ‘rock’ means something. Meaning often seems to have to do with purpose, intent, aims and so on. Things that mostly people make through creating shared understandings of words, actions and so on.
But what ‘mountains’ mean is explored through this great little book. The sub title, ‘a history of a fascination’ sums it up. We are taken through a tour of the way in which the high places of the world have affected our imaginations. At times enthralling, at other times terrifying, somethings inspiring awe and wonder and at other times acting as an object to be possessed or conquered.
Many mountaineering books have touched on aspects of this. Almost all have assumed parts of it, if only in their own particular take on mountains and what people do in them. Having this theme teased out and made the central focus makes the book particularly special and I think it will inform and add another layer of depth to subsequent mountaineering books you might read.
There is one aspect of his style that is both a real strength and also, I feel, a slight weakness of the book. That is, he comes across as very human. He gets scared in the mountains. He promises to himself that he will never venture into the high mountains again. He has panic attacks induced by vertigo. This aspect makes the book seem even more accessible. Some of us can relate to aspects of what he says about this! But these personal anecdotes are also something of a weakness. They sometimes feel a bit false, or a bit forced. I think this feeling comes because they don’t always fit naturally into the flow of the narrative. His historical narrative is so strong that it doesn’t feel like it needs any contemporary embellishment or illustration. However, that might just be my take on this – either way, I’d recommend the book very highly. Go buy it! At about a fiver on Amazon it’s a steal and might well have you checking out those flights to Geneva before you realise what you’re doing…