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Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination

4.10  ·  Rating details ·  3,029 ratings  ·  325 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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 ·  3,029 ratings  ·  325 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 08, 2021 rated it really liked it
Yet another beautiful read by Robert Macfarlane!!!
Working my way through his list of books is one of my life's greatest pleasures!
He has a way of writing about nature and wildlife that is completely breathtaking!
The way he describes mountaineering and the fascination behind it was indeed fascinating!
I couldn't help but wonder how it must feel for mountaineers to reach those great heights!
Indescribable I'd imagine!
Can't wait to read my next Robert Macfarlane book!
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
"The unknown is so inflammatory to the imagination because it is an imaginatively malleable space: a projection-screen on to which a culture or an individual can throw their fears and their aspirations."

When Hannibal crossed the Alps in ancient times, it was for the practical purpose of crossing a barrier with solid objectives in mind: surprise and conquest. Sea voyagers did what they did to find gold or to fill in the maps with seized colonial holdings for royalty. Nature, or nature for its own
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,
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,
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
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.
Lisa Wynne
I love mountains, and in the absence of being able to visit them due to the pandemic or simple geography, I love reading about them. This book is a good, deep dive into Western/European cultural understanding of high places, and the Western/European development of "mountaineering". From the title/blurb/back cover (nothing Eurocentric) I expected a much more global, cross-cultural approach to the topic of humans' relationship with mountains. Many of the highest places on Earth are outside of Euro ...more
Jan 17, 2021 rated it it was ok
2.5 stars.
This book took me an embarrassingly long time to read, mostly because I was so frustrated with it. Based on the book's description, I was expecting a mixture of history and theory around why so many explorers find themselves drawn to perilous mountain climbing. What I got was almost 300 pages of nothing but repetitive mountaineering history that never went significantly beyond the 1920's. If you're looking for a book to give you a brief overview about the Western history of mountainee
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
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
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.
Meg Briers
think i'll shelve the pipe dream of climbing up everest, cool book though! ...more
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
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
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. ...more
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.
Will Blok
Sep 14, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Tim O'Neill
Dec 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Macfarlane begins and ends his examination of humanity's fascination with mountains with George Mallory's ill-fated 1924 attempt on Everest. The book seeks to understand what could drive a young, talented and successful scholar with a loving wife and small children to put his life in jeopardy on the world's highest peak.

Macfarlane traces the evolution of (mainly western) attitudes to mountains, from the pre-modern view of them as barriers, obstacles and forbidding barren "deserts" to the sevente
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
Lady Drinkwell
Jul 19, 2021 rated it it was amazing
A book which covers subjects you are not necessarily interested in, and makes them fascinating, is an excellent book .. and this was the case for Mountains of the Mind. Obviously I wouldn't have read it if I wasn't at all interested in the subject. I loved the bits about geology and the poets who have been drawn to the mountains over the years. However I was also utterly gripped by the descriptions of mountain climbing. The author weaved his own story and adventurous experiences into the book to ...more
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
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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.

Robert Macfarlane is the author of prize-winning and bestselling books about landscape, nature, people and place, including Mountain

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“Those who travel to mountain-tops are half in love with themselves, and half in love with oblivion.” 272 likes
“Mountains seem to answer an increasing imaginative need in the West. More and more people are discovering a desire for them, and a powerful solace in them. At bottom, mountains, like all wildernesses, challenge our complacent conviction - so easy to lapse into - that the world has been made for humans by humans. Most of us exist for most of the time in worlds which are humanly arranged, themed and controlled. One forgets that there are environments which do not respond to the flick of a switch or the twist of a dial, and which have their own rhythms and orders of existence. Mountains correct this amnesia. By speaking of greater forces than we can possibly invoke, and by confronting us with greater spans of time than we can possibly envisage, mountains refute our excessive trust in the man-made. They pose profound questions about our durability and the importance of our schemes. They induce, I suppose, a modesty in us.” 145 likes
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