Literary Saloon
Site of Review.

Trying to meet all your book preview and review needs.

the Best
the Rest
Review Index




to e-mail us:

support the site

buy us books !
Amazon wishlist

In Association with Amazon.com

In association with Amazon.com - UK

In association with Amazon.ca - Canada



the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

Mountains of the Mind

Robert Macfarlane

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Mountains of the Mind

Title: Mountains of the Mind
Author: Robert Macfarlane
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2003
Length: 279 pages
Availability: Mountains of the Mind - US
Mountains of the Mind - UK
Mountains of the Mind - Canada
L'esprit de la montagne - France
  • UK subtitle: A History of a Fascination
  • US hardcover subtitle: How Desolate and Forbidding Heights Were Transformed into Experiences of Indomitable Spirit
  • US paperback subtitle: Adventures in Reaching the Summit
  • Guardian First Book Award, 2003
  • Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year, 2004
  • Won a Somerset Maugham Award

- Return to top of the page -

Our Assessment:

B+ : solid, entertaining book about mountains and mountain-climbing

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Independent . 23/5/2003 Hugh Thomson
The Independent . 11/6/2004 Christopher Hirst
New Scientist . 10/5/2003 Roy Herbert
The NY Times Book Rev. . 13/7/2003 John Rothchild
The Observer . 11/5/2003 Ed Douglas
San Francisco Chronicle . 8/6/2003 Stephen Lyons
The Telegraph . 12/5/2003 Robert Hanks
The Telegraph . 12/5/2003 Tom Fort
TLS . 23/5/2003 Ian Pindar

  Review Consensus:

  Generally quite impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) beguiling mix of memoir and cultural essay. While a history of mountain aesthetics is not such a novel idea as Granta would have us believe (...) Macfarlane puts an audacious new route up the familiar rock-face. Not many would attempt a move from George Mallory to Roland Barthes without falling flat on their faces, but he manages it with some style." - Hugh Thomson, The Independent

  • "(I)lluminating and, occasionally, vertiginous (.....) This book glitters with memorable phrases." - Christopher Hirst, The Independent

  • "Mountains of the Mind is a tumult of delights all the way. I found it particularly rewarding on early puzzling about the origin of mountains." - Roy Herbert, New Scientist

  • "Mountains of the Mind goes back three centuries, showing how a few brainy opinion makers created the outdoor image. (...) This book is mostly dispassionate, but ends with a broadside against mountain macho." - John Rothchild, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The transformation of mountain landscapes in the European imagination was an astonishing reversal and that process has rarely been explored so effectively as Robert Macfarlane does in Mountains of the Mind. (...) Macfarlane argues that romanticism continues to dictate our responses to mountain landscapes." - Ed Douglas, The Observer

  • "Macfarlane, who continues his family's tradition of climbing, has assembled a convincing book of historical evidence alongside his own oxygen-deprived experiences in an attempt to answer the age-old question, "Why climb the mountain ?"" - Stephen Lyons, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Much the most effective parts of the book are his own stories: narrowly surviving a fall of rocks in the Alps; a night huddled in a snow-cave on the Cairngorms. Sometimes his prose approaches a Shelleyan ecstasy. (...) It's easy to discern in Mountains of the Mind the outlines of a superb book, but it doesn't live up to that promise." - Robert Hanks, The Telegraph

  • "What Macfarlane gives us instead is an extremely elegant and compelling context for this most deadly of amusements. One strand is geographical -- how mountains and glaciers were made. The other is spiritual -- how they were once viewed as the most forbidding features of a threatening world, then as wonders invested by God with an awful, sublime beauty, and finally as challenges to be tackled and tamed." - Tom Fort, The Telegraph

  • "Macfarlane's "history of the imagination" is resolutely Eurocentric, and little space is granted to the non-Western mind (.....) Mountains of the Mind is, broadly, a cultural history interleaved with autobiographical vignettes (the author's agent told him to "put an 'I' into it"). The latter are nicely handled." - Ian Pindar, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

- Return to top of the page -

The complete review's Review:

       Robert Macfarlane is passionate about mountain-climbing, and appropriately enough begins his book on the subject describing how in childhood he became "sold on adventure". It is books that first truly enraptured him, his grandfather's collection of adventurers' tales of Everest and elsewhere ideal fodder and feast for a child's imagination. But Macfarlane convincingly suggests that much of the spell of mountaineering is this very thing, carried over into adulthood, and that is what he means to convey in this book:

For that reason it doesn't deal in names, dates, peaks and heights, like the standard histories of the mountains, but instead in sensations, emotions and ideas. It isn't really a history of mountaineering at all, in fact, but a history of the imagination.
       Macfarlane does offer an overview of how mountains captured the imagination in the way they have. An early significant step towards this is Thomas Burnet's The Sacred Theory of the Earth (1681), which, he believes, helped make us "able to imagine a past -- a deep history -- for landscapes". Macfarlane follows this changing attitude towards nature and history, leading eventually to both an aesthetic appreciation of mountains, and then the desire to explore and conquer them.
       The idea of conquering mountains -- climbing to their peaks -- is, by and large, a relatively recent phenomenon. Until the 19th century, few saw any reason to scale the serious Alpine (much less the Andean and Himalayan) peaks, but after a while that very ideal -- the practically pointless (and often very dangerous) ascent to -- ideally -- a mountain-top where no one had ever stood -- became a widespread ambition and popular sport.
       Macfarlane notes that: "what makes mountain-going peculiar among leisure activities is that it demands of some of its participants that they die" -- but then that's also part of its fascination and appeal. The danger and physical hardship -- all often seeming almost arbitrary (the freezing weather front, or fog that rolls in playing a greater role in success or failure than almost any decisions the climber takes) -- are part of the fun, the fact that an element of luck is vital to success (and, occasionally, survival) part of the fascination (as the reactions to the death-rolls he keeps presenting also seem to attest to).
       Macfarlane captures the physical hardship of mountaineering well, almost gleefully recounting historical and personal frostbite-episodes, and the suffering that many have endured in their battles against mountains. Luck, also, is conveyed both in accounts of personal experiences -- rocks bounding down at him, his life depending on the last bounce of the boulder, or the slip into a glacier crevasse -- and historical examples (generally of less fortunate folk).
       Macfarlane has travelled fairly widely, and he alternates between personal accounts on mountains large and small (most enjoyably in Central Asia, in parts truly unknown) and discussions of others' (generally historic) adventures, from ladies on glacier-excursions to more serious mountain conquests. The book culminates with a chapter on George Mallory's ill-fated attempts at the greatest peak of all, Everest.
       The mix of grand and small is nicely done, and he covers a lot of ground in this book. Macfarlane presents the material well, though occasionally (a bit too frequently for comfort) he over-reaches:
Oil painting is an appropriate medium to represent the processes of geology, for oil paints have landscapes immanent within them: they are made of minerals.
       But overall the book is certainly a success. He conveys the enthusiast's passion for what is certainly in part an irrational pursuit convincingly, and while it (fortunately) may not be enough to get all readers to lace up their hiking boots and set out for the nearest base camp, it makes for a fine trip for the imagination in the comfort of one's own home.

- Return to top of the page -


Mountains of the Mind: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

- Return to top of the page -

About the Author:

       British writer Robert Macfarlane was born in 1976.

- Return to top of the page -

© 2005-2009 the complete review

Main | the New | the Best | the Rest | Review Index | Links