Mark Mason

Reading while walking

Reading while walking
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Unpredicted Consequences of the eBook Number 371: more people are reading as they walk along.

I say ‘more’. Actually I’ve seen two, in as many weeks. So this is a prediction rather than an observation. But it’s one I’m pretty confident about. It struck me as I watched the people in question — both 20-something women, both reading Kindles — that a single-page e-reader isn’t that much bigger than a large smartphone. It’s perfectly common as you walk along to check your emails and texts, or even surf the net — so why not read a book? In fact you can read books on your iPhone, making the transition from one habit to the other even easier. A traditional book requires two hands to hold, or certainly to turn its pages — but in this era of the electronic device, when that turn of the page is just a flick of the thumb, surely the combined read-and-walk will become more common?

It depends on the terrain, of course. One of the women I saw was on a quiet side-street — but the other was negotiating the pedestrian whirlpool that is the junction of Whitehall and Charing Cross, at the height of the morning rush hour. Her consideration for other pavement users was impeccable, her ability to skirt round them seemingly telepathic. Obviously as seasoned an operator as the American writer Inara LaVey (whose genre you might be able to guess from her titles Ripping the Bodice and All I Want For Christmas Is Two Hot Men). LaVey developed the skill of reading while walking when ‘forced to choose between exercise and reading’ (presumably time considerations rather than bizarre parenting). ‘My peripheral vision,’ she explains, ‘is kickass.’ You say that sort of thing when you’re an American writer.

One blogger who wrote about her read-walking (walk-reading?) said she tends to ‘walk faster when a book is reaching an exciting cliffhanger type crescendo, and slow it down during more poignant moments.’ Whether that’s an unconscious reaction to the text, or a deliberate policy of playing along with it, isn’t specified. All we know is it could lead to some erratic pedestrianism if anyone did it while reading Fifty Shades of Grey. Which, given current sales patterns in the British book market, at least one of the two women I saw almost certainly was.

I’ve never been able to master the art of combining walking and reading. Possibly this is because I’m male and therefore unable to multi-task (my partner says I very often can’t do one thing at the same time, let alone two). It’s not just the worry about bumping into people, though. I’m wary of looking a pseud. I once witnessed a young man walking along a London street, paperback in front of face, who might as well have worn a T-shirt saying ‘look at me, I’m so intellectual I can’t stop reading even as I walk along’. The memory refuses to leave me. Out in the country, where I live, deadlines have once or twice led to some work-related reading while I’m out on a dog-walk. But even that’s tricky. You’re only one unseen rabbit hole away from disaster.

Besides, the real question is: were books meant to be read this way? It’s delightful that people are so gripped by a story that they literally cannot leave it alone as they get from A to B. But can they honestly be giving the book their proper attention? And even if they are — real enjoyment from reading depends on having some experience of the world against which to measure what you read. And how are you going to get that experience if you’ve always got your head in a book?