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Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination

4.1  ·  Rating details ·  1,543 Ratings  ·  144 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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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
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.
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
Anneliese Tirry
Apr 17, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Ik zal het zeggen zoals het is: ik ben een fan van Robert Macfarlane en ik hou ervan om te lezen hoe hij oude of wilde plaatsen zelf verkent en hoe hij dat ervaart. Ik hou van zijn stijl en van zijn gedachtengang, ik hou ervan hoe hij eerlijk is, hoe hij een boek opbouwt tot een soort climax, ik hou van zijn openheid tot een extra dimensie en ik hou van zijn spiritualiteit.
Bij de eerdere boeken die ik van zijn hand las, moest ik vaak naar adem happen en was er vaak een enorm gevoel van herkenni
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
Sep 07, 2015 rated it it was amazing
A most fascinating history of mountains and mountaineering but I didn't find it an easy read. It is full of interesting facts and descriptions and is very different from other mountain climbing accounts. Erudite, philosophical and beautifully written, it explores man's 'fixation with dizzy heights'.
Jul 03, 2012 rated it really liked it
A fascinating read about the Western fascination with mountains and mountain-climbing over the last 400 years. Some of the stories are thoroughly eye-watering and vertigo-inducing so I shall remain an armchair enthusiast!
Paul Stevenson
Feb 06, 2014 rated it it was amazing
An excellent and engaging theory on the reasons people are attracted to mountaineering despite the intrinsic danger. Cohesive, thorough and beautifully balanced with personal and relevant climbing trips, it will doubtless be fuel for thought when I am next in that space.
Jan 29, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: adventure-travel
I really enjoyed this and got so much from it, mountaineering, adventure, literature, history. Just a beautiful awe-inspiring exploration of the natural environment and man's obsession with it.
Steffen Smit
Jan 26, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This favorite book inspired me to enjoy nature Mountains, valleys and the diversity of life. All macfarlane books are superb.
Oct 22, 2012 rated it it was amazing
A thrilling mixture of intellectual and physical adventure, seeing clouds from both sides, as it were.
Sep 06, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Why climb mountains?

-To confront deep time as seen in large-scale geologic features
"Yet there is also something curiously exhilarating about the contemplation of deep time. True, you learn yourself to be a blip in the larger projects of the universe. But you are also rewarded with the realization that you do exist - as unlikely as it may seem, you do exist."

-To become a better person though facing difficulties
"One of the fundamentals of [Samuel] Smiles' creed was that difficulty brought out the
Aug 07, 2017 rated it it was amazing
To be possessed...

Macfarlane, a mountain climber himself, takes great care to make one point clear: that it is not that mountains themselves have the power to possess us, but rather that possession occurs at precisely that disjuncture between the real and the imagined. A colloboration between phyisical form and human imagination-- the Readers of these Pages will understand if I suggest here that imaginary possession is a kind of mood. Mountains surely have possess a powerful draw on our imaginat
A.E. Reiff
Jun 11, 2011 rated it liked it
In projected volumes Macfarlane proposes to take up valleys, deserts and oceans of the mind. These sound plausible as any "collaboration of the physical forms of the world with the imagination of humans--a mountain of the mind" (18, 19). The value of collaboration is this, we can have mountains, valleys and even air, but minus the ecologic waste. Keep the mountain wild by making it over into ourselves. More wild by far.

How are we more wild than the mountain? The human self emotes its anthropos (
Brooke Salaz
Aug 29, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, own
Macfarlane begins with his own history of a lifetime of pursuit of the elevated landscape and then discusses how the European mind came to see these high places as worthy of exploration even at high risk of loss of life and limb. What we now see as natural in terms of human desire to conquer challenges and go “into thin air” in some form of pilgrimage either spiritual, physical or mentally purifying, is not innate and timeless. Peak bagging as a pursuit and boost to self esteem and proof of fitn ...more
Jul 20, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nature-writing
I know this, Mscfarlane's first book, suffered from being the last of his currently published books that I've read. all of the elements that make his writing so transcendently brilliant are there, but in proportions that are ever so slightly perfected in later books. this one leans a little heavily on history, compared to his later works. However, his evocation of various landmark mountaineers, especially Mallory, are absolutely intoxicating. I've never before considered mountain climbing before ...more
Like all of Macfarlane's writing, the prose here is absolutely beautiful. His ability to describe the natural world truly makes you feel as though you are there with him. The only thing that keeps me from liking the book more is my inability to understand the drive to venture into landscapes where the chance of death is high. Macfarlane tries to explain that drive, but I still can't wrap my mind around it. Why do people want to summit Everest? The chapter on Mallory discusses the obsession with ...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
Mar 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This was such a lovely read on a subject that fascinates me. Rober Macfarlane has put incredibly extensive research into this work, and the result is refreshing, humorous and engaging.
I especially enjoyed the way Macfarlane manages to visualise the lure of the mountains with his words, and the way the entire book leads up to its inevitable climax: George Mallory's three attemps to reach the summit of Mount Everest.
Can't wait to read more of Macfarlane's work.

'When we look at a landscape, we do
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Robert Macfarlane is a British travel 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.
“Those who travel to mountain-tops are half in love with themselves, and half in love with oblivion.” 214 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.” 118 likes
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