(Lev Grossman writes about books here on Wednesdays. Subscribe to his RSS feed.)
I wanted to start this post by saying that everybody’s done it, at least once or twice, but probably that’s not true. I know it’s a weakness. A vice even. You’re making a choice: essentially what you’re saying (or what I’m saying) is that sometimes you’re more interested in fiction than in reality and you don’t care who knows it. You’re saying, I’m willing to chuck most or probably all of my dignity, and some measure of my personal safety, and your personal safety, because it’s more important to me to keep reading this book I’m reading than it is to look where I’m going.
Not everybody makes that choice. The world is probably a better place for that.
But I know I’m not the only one. I once read an interview with Marilynne Robinson in the New York Times in which she confessed to reading books while she walks her dog. So I’m not completely alone.
And anyway, mostly it’s just short flights, no big deal. I’m in the privacy of my own home. I know the terrain. Why should I put down George R.R. Martin during the short trek from couch to bathroom? What would happen if I just kept on reading?
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I stand up. I start walking. I’m still reading. My secondary senses go into overdrive to keep me on track (you know, like Daredevil). My mind divides: I’m both here and not-here, in the reality and in the fiction at the same time. The world scrolls by around the edges of the page, the margins outside the margins—furniture, stairs, pets, children. I keep a weather eye on all that, but I’m still reading, I’m still taking in sentences. I’m navigating by memory and peripheral vision, eyes down, course-correcting as needed.
Then I’m safe at my destination without once having broken contact with the fiction. It’s satisfying. I feel like I got away with something. Screw you, Aslan, I’m stayin’ in Narnia.
Though it’s a slippery slope from there. Once you master the basic skill, it’s tempting to take it to the office. I do. That’s familiar turf too, though there’s a new element, namely my co-workers. They probably think it’s odd. Eccentric even. Bah! It’s worth it. By reading and walking at the same time I’ve got uninterrupted access to the page. It’s like broadband, it’s always on.
Now reading and walking outside—I’ve seen it called readwalking—that’s a different proposition. I do it, but it depends on where I am. Marilynne Robinson lives in Iowa City, where I imagine (I’ve never been there) you can find dog-walking paths that are relatively free of foot traffic. I live in New York City, where the sidewalks are crowded, and there are already a lot of people bombing along them with their heads down because they’re texting. My favorite part is when two texters meet head-to-head and they both look up and stare at each other blankly, neither one budging, like the north-going Zax and the south-going Zax in Dr. Seuss.
I try to be a little more considerate than that. But once in a while I get off the subway at a crucial juncture in a novel, and I just cannot wait till I’m in my office to find out what happens next. I have to squinch out a few sentences in between. I just have to.
(I can imagine an Olympic sport based on this—like biathlon, but instead of shooting targets you’re reading while you’re skiing, the winner to be judged on both time and reading comprehension.)
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My first move is to clamp the book under one arm, inside-out, at my current page, like a running-back with a football, so I can whip it out at a moment’s notice.
Then I pick my spots. Short bursts is the approach. You look for a stretch of open sidewalk, maybe a half a block, you hastily memorize the major obstacles, and then you glance down at the book. You’re speed-reading here—you don’t so much run your eye over the page as grab the next few sentences all at once. Then the book goes back under the arm. You look up again and digest the words as you walk. You check your location and bearing, like a submarine, and you prepare to dive again.
Strangers look at you a bit funny, but come on—they’re strangers. Not like the characters you’re reading about. Sure, they may be fictional, but they’re not strangers. They matter.
In extreme cases I’ve even been known to draft off the backs of other pedestrians, the way cyclists do in a crowded peloton. I pick a target who looks like a fine upstanding citizen, with somewhere to be and a tolerant view of humanity. I find I can follow the person at a discreet, respectful distance, keeping his or her feet at the upper edge of my peripheral vision, and use them to lead me around fire hydrants and sidewalk café chairs and people hailing taxis, like a seeing-eye dog.
It’s foolish, of course. I know it is. It’s the opposite of being a flâneur: I’m not practicing what Balzac called “the gastronomy of the eye,” feasting on the rich details of the world around me as if it were a novel. I’m doing the opposite. I’m not a flâneur, I’m a lecteur: I’m opting out of life’s rich pageant in favor of literature’s rich pageant. I can only imagine the serendipitous encounters I’m missing out on, the interesting cloud formations, the fleeting eye contacts, the fine architectural details, the noteworthy trees, the changing seasons, all the chance beauty that’s passing me by while I walk and read. But sometimes life just isn’t as interesting as art.
Of course the other thing I miss is sightings of my fellow lecteurs, charging along the pavement, nose in a book, steering by feel. But I know they’re there. We pass like ships in the night—mon semblable, mon frère. But there’s a kinship between us nonetheless. We’ve made the same choice. They too have chosen art over life, looking weird over looking normal, the printed page over the blank, uninteresting, unreadable faces of the crowd. They’ve opted out of it all.
Myself included—they have opted out of me. I can’t really blame them. I would do the same thing.
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