Reading while walking is a difficult hobby to discuss, because bringing it up raises all sorts of varied reactions, most of them negative. “How do you do that without throwing up?” “But you’ll get hit by a bus!” Once I was asked if I was a doctor or a lawyer, to which I just sheepishly replied “… Nope, just a guy,” and shoved my nose back into my book, again safely shielded from society. My favorite is when I was accused of snobbery — what, reading is so important to you that your brain would shrivel up and waste away if you didn’t put the book down for one lousy goddamn walk?
Well … yeah, but that’s not even half of the story. Reading on the go isn’t something I preach to people as if it would change their lives. On the contrary, if it became a much more common pastime, it would change a lot of people’s lives, but only in the “removing it from them” sense. After all, it’s exactly what Stephen King was doing before his fateful brush with near-death along Maine State Route 5. But you could throw all of the cautionary tales in the world at me and I wouldn’t change my ways.
Forgive me for wandering around my own brain for a while, but when I experience any piece of culture, the surrounding environment implants itself into my memory almost as firmly as the work of art itself. I don’t just remember reading A Dance with Dragons — I remember reading it on the BART platform and along the Embarcadero waterfront during my breaks at work. I don’t just remember watching the fifth season of The Sopranos for the first time — I remember in which room and at what time of day I watched each episode, whether it was the season premiere, early in the morning in my South Berkeley duplex before rushing to German class, or the season finale, on a summer afternoon in the murky attic of my North Berkeley co-op.
I’m probably doing walk-readers a disservice here by implying that all of them are insane; I’m sure there’s a truckload of reasons one would deliberately obscure one of their key senses in public. But it’s something I’ve done nearly as far back as I can remember — ever since I first grew into a voracious reader — and now that I’ve found myself with a surplus of leisure time, I don’t want my memories of the books I read to be couched in a vivid image of my ass, sitting on an armchair for hours on end.
I also feel a certain affection for authors who write big books about big ideas, and walk-reading is a way to make me feel like I’m matching the author’s ambitions, even if it means carrying out a balancing act with a six-pound tome. For the last week I’ve been lugging Robert Caro’s doorstop-sized The Passage of Power all over the Bay Area, including a 13-mile march from Daly City to San Francisco’s Lower Haight district. I’m not trying to impress you — I’m trying to impress Robert Caro, or Fyodor Dostoevsky, or Walter Moers, whether they realize it or not (they don’t).
My experience with the few walk-readers I’ve met is that if you’re confident enough in your spatial orientation to read on the road in the first place, you probably already know how to stay safe during this potentially dangerous endeavor. But I’m still going to go over the ground rules that I follow, lest I spawn any copycats and wind up with multiple instances of vehicular manslaughter on my conscience.
1. Stick to residential streets whenever possible. I’m sure Stephen King is quite a skilled walk-reader, but when I look at the name “Maine State Route 5,” what jumps out at me is “State Route.” I wouldn’t walk-read on anything called a “State Route.” Try to gravitate toward areas where sidewalks are plentiful and sparsely populated, particularly if you’re exploring an unfamiliar area. If you’re in a city or town where you have a solid sense of where everything is, the rules are a little looser, but safety is still your primary concern.
2. Do not read while crossing an intersection. This one sounds like a no-brainer, but living in Berkeley, one of the most pedestrian-friendly cities in the United States, it’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security and get blindsided by a car while nose-deep in Mockingjay. Intersections are a border zone where you and (potentially) dozens of people in control of a ton of motorized metal share the same space, and the half a page of progress you’ll lose isn’t worth your life.
3. Look up, stupid! This is where spatial orientation plays a particularly important role, not just because you don’t want to run into a tree, but because you’re a polite member of society who doesn’t want to barrel into another polite member of society and receive a decidedly impolite response. I’ve run into a branch or two in my day, but I’ve never run into a stroller, and I plan to keep it that way. Plus, part of the appeal of walk-reading is taking in the scenery from time to time.
4. No music! This is a recent addition to my list, but I’ve changed my tune, literally. Blocking one of your senses is already a tough enough sell; blocking two of them is an invitation to be run over or mugged, and the pop culture echo chamber it creates almost defeats the purpose of going outside in the first place.
I’m sure I still have a lot of you fearing for my life on my behalf, but I at least can rest assured that I have allies. I’m sure this guy would declare me his mortal enemy, but misanthropy is always the funny way out, I guess. Join me in future installments as I discuss: reading while driving!