Book Walks, or, The Life Changing Magic of Ambulatory Reading

I’d like to offer some meditations on a simple practice that I think not enough people do, probably for fear of being hit by a car.

The book walk is in some ways self-explanatory: walking, from somewhere to somewhere else. while reading a books. But, since it’s in other ways a subtle art, I’ll say a bit more!

Many have written about ambulation as aid for thinking, even for “being” fully in one’s body and in the world. Writers, philosophers, wannabe writers and philosophers — legion are those who have enjoyed walking, and chosen to share that experiential wisdom. Walking, simply walking with one’s full concentration and focused efforts, is enjoyable and worthwhile. But throw reading into the mix? Let’s see how the pleasures multiply.

The book walk is a method for focus. Reading is too often a distracted act, marred by external intrusions; interruptions, at least potential, abound. But walking is consistent forward motion, progress. And where your body goes, so do your eyes follow. Walking is about pace, rhythm — and when you hitch reading to this act, you lend it momentum as well; you protect it from the things that so often tug and tear at the attention of the sedentary reader. Reading, while walking, you are in transit, making progress in more ways than one, and until you reach your destination you may find yourself unable to stop.

The book walk is bounded; and so is the act of reading, bookended by the beginning and end of the path you’ve chosen. Unless you’re walking a track, a loop — a valid choice! — every walk has an end. Even if you’ve chosen circularity, no walk lasts forever. And very often, the walks you take are necessary, regularly occurring parts of your way. This makes them a great opportunity for isolating a block of time and injecting it with something more…not that walks need to be filled — just that they pose an opportunity. If you feel short on reading time, time to focus with a book, this is one answer. While reading and walking you can do little else; besides attuning your peripheral vision you are available for no incursions from the outside world. You are in a cocoon of your own making, of words and paces and motion.

The book walk is perfectly suited to transitions. To and from work, from school — our regular commutes form built-in borders drawn between the parcels of our days. These boundary times are buffers for our mental state changes. Filling these times with walking affords opportunity to clear the slate, to refresh and reset the mind and the body. Walking, by itself, can serve this purpose well…but I often find, for example when walking home from work, that my mind fills with overflow from the day, unresolved strands of thought, unsolved problems threatening to spill over into my evening. Reading during these walks can be a welcome way to reset, to overwrite those mental processes. When I reach home I’m no longer thinking about work; my palate has been cleansed.

The book walk is an embodied creative experience, the melding of mental and physical. I find the experience of a book walk rewarding even if the walk has no destination. The most important part of this practice concerns not the specifics of the walk, but the simple act of marrying mental work with bodily movement. It adds a new dimension to the reading, as the purely interior space of reading becomes entangled with the surrounding world. I like this idea of traveling on two planes at once, marking a trail in the real world while also blazing one through a great book. And I find this easiest when walking a familiar route, because then there’s no distractions of novelty or uncertainty — I can move forward almost automatically, my well-trod route impressing its contours upon what I’m currently reading, and the words and ideas in turn bounding out and filling the space around me.

So, such are the benefits of the book walk. Now, how to go about actually doing one? It’s a tricky skill to perfect, what with the demands on situational awareness, requiring you to glance up at intervals that vary in proportion to density and speed of pedestrian and vehicular traffic, spatial constraints, and engrossment-factor of subject matter at hand. But! It can be learned.

It’s simple: pick a good book, one you’ll easily engage with. Pick a route, a walk you’ve walked before; 20–45 minutes is probably a good start, perhaps a regular commute or a trip to a nearby park. I find a Kindle works well: compact, easy to grip, built for one-handed use, fits in a back pocket when needed. If you’re clumsy or lack good peripheral awareness, practice that a bit…or make sure your book walk avoids areas of heavy traffic. Then: turn to the page you’re on, hold the words up in front of you, and put one foot in front of the other.