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Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination

4.10  ·  Rating details ·  2,359 ratings  ·  247 reviews
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 ...more
Paperback, 320 pages
Published May 13th 2004 by Granta Books (first published May 8th 2003)
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 ·  2,359 ratings  ·  247 reviews

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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 ...more
Sarah O'Toole
Jan 14, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Jun 29, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: anyone who likes mountains
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 ...more
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
Nov 08, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
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,
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.
Dec 19, 2019 rated it really liked it
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,
Jo Bennie
Jun 28, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: m
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 ...more
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]
Jan 27, 2020 rated it it was amazing
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.
Aug 31, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 15, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: read-in-2015, walking
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 ...more
Jul 20, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Dec 28, 2010 rated it it was ok
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.
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.
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
Carl Barlow
Jun 27, 2020 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Costin Nitsoc
Oct 05, 2019 rated it liked it
"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
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 ...more
Andrew King
Jan 14, 2020 rated it really liked it
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
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 ...more
Simon Slidders
Apr 09, 2020 rated it liked it
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.
Feb 17, 2013 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
May 22, 2019 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
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 ...more
Aug 29, 2017 rated it it was ok
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 ...more
Richard Newton
May 01, 2013 rated it really liked it
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.
Feb 09, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition

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.
Rob Ward
Nov 16, 2013 rated it liked it
Clearly well researched but packed with a lengthy history of geology and views from the 18th and 19th centuries which, while vaguely interesting, fell well short of what I hoped to find in this book. Mountains capture the imaginations of so many people because they inspire and challenge. I hope this book would inspire me with stories and accomplishments. It did in part only.
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Robert Macfarlane is a British nature writer and literary critic.

Educated at Nottingham High School, Pembroke College, Cambridge and Magdalen College, Oxford, he is currently a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and teaches in the Faculty of English at Cambridge.

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