Libambulators Unite! Walking + Reading to Save A City by Lee Klein

 

Hold a book in front of you, a little to one side. Focus on the sentences but also use your peripheral vision. Mark your place with a thumb as you sample what’s ahead: the sidewalk continues for 200 feet; that biker will glide around you; long before that dogwalker approaches, veer from her oversized Akita. Such sights don’t interfere with steady, immersive reading. There’s no annoying entanglement of thought and text. Look up, store an image, and walk through it as you read. Instead of walking solely in the real world, inhabit a fictional world you imaginatively co-create with the book that’s in your hand.

Whenever I admit that I like to walk and read, without fail someone will respond: “I couldn’t do that, I’m not coordinated enough.” Or: “I’m afraid I’d get hit by a bus.” It’s always a bus. Are buses the smusher of choice because they’re the largest moving things on city streets? Does size matter because it best exaggerates the hypothetical smush? Or is it possible that the “hit-by-bus” response suggests that the community at large will punish the walking reader for turning what is solitary and sedentary into something active and public?

“Still, dude, you’re gonna get hit by a bus.”

“No, I don’t think so. I’m never in danger. In fact, I’m saving the world.”

Bruno Schulz started it. I’d heard good things about The Street of Crocodiles, but never that the book by the Polish writer/artist was such a soporific. Every page I read in bed pushed me toward sleep. I almost wrote Bruno Schulz off as a total bore. Bruno Schulz. He’d been the servant of a Nazi who shot another Nazi’s servant. According to legend, “You killed my Jew, so now I kill your Jew,” were the last words Bruno heard. Some fifty years later, I almost declared his prose boring. But then I read him as I walked to the subway. I read on the train, and read as I climbed the steps to the streets. I walked and read, wary of intersections, en route to Union Square, where I sat and read—and just like that, sitting, I started drifting again. So I walked all over Manhattan, reading Bruno Schulz. And that was it. For a while, The Street of Crocodiles was my first and only walking and reading experience.

A few years later, after grad school ended, I had a wide-open month in Iowa City before leaving for Philadelphia. I was staying in the hot attic of a friend’s house. I couldn’t really concentrate well enough to write, had no work to do nor other distractions, so I set out every morning on long reading strolls. Miles a day, every day. I stopped now and then to sit, sure, but mainly I moved. I saw Iowa City anew, all while reading thousands of pages. Not a bad way to pass the month of June.

I was walking away from too many thoughts about writing, washing them out with a torrent of words, all in a few weeks that felt like a continual stint of libambulism. I slept well. My legs felt strong. I was covering ground, putting distance between myself and where I would not be much longer. These were the last days of the fiction writing grad school era, but also the absolute end of a relationship I’d once thought would extend indefinitely. I was no longer living in my girlfriend’s house, no longer enjoying her plush backyard, porch, cats. Instead, I was flushed into the streets, therapeutically walking and reading, occupying my thoughts, passing time, turning the pages through Underworld, The Radetzky March, The Human Stain, The Plot Against America, and even The Da Vinci Code.

I saw these libambulatory jaunts as heroic. Reborn from sad ashes, I had a new plan, something to show that I wasn’t struggling at all: I was striving out in the open, turning the solitary and sedentary into something almost athletic. It was like I’d conceived a new Olympic event, one tailored for the bookworm smoker: the simultaneous readathon walkathon.


The Ecstatic Beauty of Impossible Acts

Werner Herzog hauled a steamboat over an Amazonian hill while making a movie about an obsessed entrepreneur hauling a steamboat over an Amazonian hill. Herzog claims not to know the color of his own eyes, he insists that he has never dreamed, and he once lost a bet to Errol Morris and had to eat his own shoe. Herzog also once walked around Germany to ease its reunification, and walked from Munich to Paris when he heard that mentor filmmaker Lotte Eisnor was dying. (Before he set out, he told her she could not die until he arrived, and she wound up living for years.) Werner Herzog is most attracted to characters who remove the prefix from words like impossible and implausible.

At a talk at the University of Pennsylvania, I heard Herzog say that if he had a film school he’d require applicants to walk 3000 miles to him. Applicants would keep a journal of what they saw and thought. At the end of their travel, they’d submit the journal and in those pages he would see the arc of the aspirant’s career. Herzog stressed the athletic elements of filmmaking, insisting that directors study boxing to handle the rigors of directing. And when asked what were the most important lessons about filmmaking he could impart, Herzog said “reading and walking.”

Herzog didn’t say one should read and walk simultaneously, but that didn’t stop friends from slapping me and saying “Werner’s onto you.” He said that if you read and read and read, and walk at great length, as a mode of transportation, you will see “the mice along the road”—that is, you will be someone on whom nothing is lost (Henry James’s definition of a writer), or someone “who doesn’t divert one’s eyes,” as Herzog defines an artist.

During the Q & A, I’m sure that if I declared my intentions to save Philadelphia by reading and walking, he’d have approved of the impossible act. The wildly delusional, irrational, potentially reprehensibly megalomaniacal act is comfortable territory for him.

“Yah,” he would say, “it is unsafe, it is nonsensical, it therefore makes perfect sense when you consider the consistent nonsensicality of the world.”


City Saving

So how is it possible to save a city by walking and reading? Is Philadelphia, in particular, not too large and varied for saving, broken and freaked and so murderous its nickname recently unofficially shifted from “The City of Brotherly Love” to “Killadelphia”? Consider this: instead of tooling down the street, cursing myself, my neighbors, and a malevolent God; instead of smoking mentholated cigarettes, expelling alcoholic flatulence at great volume from both of my bodily ends, littering for sport, leering at Catholic school girls; instead of doing anything remotely unbecoming of civil humanity like that, I’m walking and holding War and Peace. I’m silently reading to myself, not even moving my lips, not impeding on anyone, not shoving the big book too deeply into anyone’s eyespace, not demeaning anyone with unsolicited offers to do them good. And then instead of seeing the leering, flatulent, urban troll, a couple with a child on the way drive by slowly as they check out the area to see if this is the sort of spot they want to call home. This couple of intermediate means is wondering where to move. It’s a major event in their lives. Despite the violence in the city, they’re committed to the cultural and environmental benefits of urban occupancy, and they can afford a place in South Philly, whereas they can’t afford Brooklyn or classier areas of Philadelphia. As they drive through the area, they are open to possibilities, to influence; everything seen they interpret as symbol. Every interaction is metonymically alive, part of the whole. And in that moment of extreme sensitivity, chances are that if they see me walking and reading their impression of the area (and by extension their impression of their future) may be slightly more favorable than if they see a leering drunk the moment he decides to relieve himself upon a fire hydrant.

The overriding question isn’t really whether saving the city via walking and reading is a possibility; it’s more about whether it’s a necessity. Let’s see: lots of unemployment, more than enough murder, corruption, racism, and a statistically unquantifiable vibe that seems to distrust anything “intellectual.” But at least it has a solid folk hero in Rocky. Maybe Stallone, Herzog, and I are on the same page? We’re interested in overcoming ridiculous odds. Swallowing a glassful of egg yolks for breakfast, running through the Italian Market, sprinting up the Art Museum steps. What could be more “underdog” than a guy walking through the streets reading War and Peace, creating viral momentum that ultimately makes a significant impact on society, more so than say, walking over to the blind folks’ home and reading Tolstoy aloud once a week? Or volunteering at a literacy program? Or mentoring an underprivileged child? Or doing anything other than walking while reading a big-ass book written by someone who responded when serfs called him “Count.”

The difference is the ease of entry. It’s much easier to read to real people, plus the reward is nearly impossible to achieve with libambulism compared to the immediate, definite effect of volunteering time to help someone. But we’re not talking about helping individuals one at a time—we’re talking about the ecstatic beauty of an impossible act, of saving a city through walking and reading. All I want to do is humbly transmit my love and respect for literature—for the thoughts and worlds transmitted within those books that relate to the real world—in a city and a cultural climate in America that often seem in need of some serious freakin’ salvation.

So when the couple of intermediate means and a child on the way see me walking and reading while they’re in their extra-sensitized state, they might say something like our unborn child will live an interesting life filled with books read while walking through an endless city—we should consider this neighborhood. They say these things, then buy a place, improve the building, sweep the sidewalk of cigarette butts and cheesesteak detritus. They become a model family in a renewing neighborhood of a renewing city. The neighborhood becomes more attractive, property values rise, so do taxes, the money improves schools, jobs are created to serve the needs of the people in the neighborhood, and everything thereafter goes swimmingly till the end of eternity, all because two people saw another person walking and reading and considered that sight a positive sign.

If anything is a necessity now, it’s positive signs.


The Endangered 25%

In Philadelphia, in 2005, 21.4% of adults were obese (the city is consistently in the top five for the highest obesity rates, according to the American Obesity Association); 23.5% of adults were without a high school degree (17% were illiterate); 24.9% were living below the poverty line; and 25.07% had cardiovascular disease. So it seems like about one quarter of the city could use some salvation. But how?

Walking is ideal exercise that decreases rates of heart disease, diabetes, depression, on and on. In an unprecedentedly massive society of people who never exercise, walking is an obvious positive that requires no gym membership, no skill, and has no major impact on the environment (compared to, say, car racing). That’s the easy part.

In 2002, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) produced a survey that statistically substantiated the fear that literary reading in America is doomed thanks to the Internet, DVDs, video games. It’s harder to read and it’s less social than most other media, but such minor difficulties may be a key to the survival of the Endangered 25%. Didn’t someone once say that anything worth fighting for was never easy?

Here are some positive signs the NEA survey figured out about literary readers. Active civic participation strongly correlates to literary reading, with 43% of literary readers doing volunteer or charity work compared to 17% of nonreaders. Literary readers also play more sports (38%) than nonreaders (24%), so one could say that readers are sportier than nonreaders. The survey found that literature participation increases “fairly steadily for each increase in family income,” so why is reading not as aspirationally attractive as driving a souped-up Denali? And in terms of the poverty line, the NEA survey found that “people in managerial, professional, and technical occupations are more likely to read literature than those in other occupation groups.”

So, the NEA survey said that readers make more money, are sportier, have more power, and are way more likely to help ease nonfictional suffering. That seems like an overall positive outlook, despite the depressing statistics about how everyone (regardless of age, race, ethnicity, education, income) is reading less than they were 20 years ago.

But how can we get the message to our obese, impoverished friends with cardiovascular disease who don’t read that much? Walk it to them while we read. (It used to be called “taking it to the streets.”)

 

The Inevitably Tragic End of the Walking Reader

Like some slower, dorkier Critical Mass (in which bicyclists ride through city streets, agitating car drivers in favor of Bike Power), let’s gather some early-summer Saturday afternoon in a park somewhere central, then head out in an unstoppable posse of libambulists. It’d be like a walk-n-readathon. We could even get people to sponsor us. A dollar for every page read multiplied by the number of miles and the hours we walk. The route will not be scenic, however. We’ll go through areas below the poverty line, where it’s most murderous, where literary reading is less common than illiteracy. But we will go there, all of us armed with War and Peace, and we will walk there reading, not bumping into stuff, not getting hit by buses.

When we’re inevitably asked what the hell we’re doing walking and reading up there, we’ll say it’s good for you, it’s a good sign for the city, it’s good for your heart and head, wards off diabetes and depression, if you do it frequently and read a bunch of books you’ll be associated with people who are sportier and healthier and wealthier. We’re not doing this for fun, y’know, we’re saving souls. We’re doing this out of necessity. The history of the world is the history of necessity, so says the end of this big-ass book we’re reading. And what we’re doing is absolutely necessary if we want our country and its culture to have anything resembling a semblance of hope, anything resembling a fulfilling interior life, anything resembling an understanding of ambiguity that literary reading promotes. And we’re walking and reading because we want people to see it’s not that hard to do, it’s not really dangerous at all, and . . .

As we evangelize to someone enjoying a relaxing stoop session on a lovely June afternoon, a big-ass bus fails to see us as it turns a corner where dozens never walk and read in the street. Books fly through the air. Other books drop to the ground as the spared run to help the martyred. The bus empties and everyone says why the hell are you all walking and reading, don’t you know you’re gonna get hit by a bus?! We tell them about the ecstatic beauty of impossible acts like saving a city’s Endangered 25% by promoting the positive habit of libambulating, and they say oh man, oh man, call the (lib)ambulance.

 

America, I’m Addressing You

The bus represents the community, most likely the so-called “Endangered 25%” whom I believe some critical mass of walking readers may help, even if the walk-n-readathon only marginally raises awareness about the necessity of reading, about how reading itself is endangered, how endangered species can team together to revive and flourish. So far it’s all very good on paper, as something to read. At the very most, a positive sign that virally infects a few to libambulate.

Everyone should be required to read one novel a month, and during warmer months, some of this reading should be required to be done while walking. But these suggestions run contrary to one of the wonders of living in America, i.e., what’s called freedom, the liberty to pursue happiness, even if it’s as anti-salubrious and post-textually sedentary as watching seven hours of television while ingesting a historically unprecedented quantity of corn syrup and glucose. That’s what freedom means for at least a quarter of all Americans: the freedom to kill yourself softly with literal and figurative sugar.

All this sounds elitist and hateful. But I’m really just exaggerating to make a point. Although I should also admit that I am approaching a point of empathic exhaustion. I’m tired of gawking at obese folks having trouble walking through the doors of a Wendy’s restaurant. I’m tired of not seeing people on the streets reading books of relative quality, or anything at all, especially in Philadelphia, a town proud of documents signed here, The Constitution and The Declaration of Independence, a city served by one bridge named for an influential writer of wit and wisdom (among other things), Ben Franklin, and another bridge named after the gay poet Walt Whitman.

According to the NEA survey, 93 million Americans are literary readers—that is, they read books, including mysteries and horror, genres other than what’s typically reviewed in the New York Times. That’s not a bad number. But the thing is: the rancor I feel for an abstract composite (I picture someone sort of like Jabba the Hut) of sedentary, overweight, nonreaders relates to self-criticisms, anxieties, and insecurities that drive me to try a little harder to walk, exercise, read, and write about the necessity of all these. That is, to do what I can rather than selfishly devour rapidly delivered, largely vapid entertainment—and literally walk what I talk, that is, read while walking at least an hour a day as I commute to and from work.

America, I’m addressing you: how did 50.7% of your citizens re-elect an administration that lied and cheated to dedicate so many billions of dollars to occupying a country, largely in the name of oil but also in the name of a need for so-called security, spurred by 9/11, which killed some 3,000 people in NYC, when how many more a year die from complications related to obesity, diabetes, smoking? (In 2000, the total number of suicide deaths in the United States was 29,350.) And how many more are endangered because they lack a sufficient level of education and therefore may occasionally make bad decisions, or at least don’t do what Congress does when it comes to difficult choices: that is, deliberate. Survey all sides of an issue, list them, weigh them, prioritize, and then decide after much discussion whether something deserves a yea or nay. If they’d read enough books that show the interests of various sides at once, championing ambiguity, then they would have understood that the common interest is in their self-interest. And if they don’t understand this, maybe they need to be held accountable, rounded up, re-educated, and forced to read War and Peace a few times before they’re released into society.

What I’m really insisting on here is the need for a literary fundamentalist takeover of the United States of America. Let’s take over the country and transform the 50.7% who re-elected George W. Bush in 2004 into walking-reading foot soldiers for good. We’ll strap solar panels to their heads and backs and windmills to their foreheads and shoulders, we’ll send them on walking-reading jaunts through areas nearly obliterated by decades of lack of concern among self-interested Americans. Think of all the sustainable energy they’ll make, offsetting their Sasquatchian carbon footprint as they march endlessly through blighted areas, and those who have tools and skills can work to repair some buildings and . . .

How is it possible that what’s expressed in the last paragraph is absurd, elitist, reprehensible? It’s insane to suggest that walking while reading can save a city, but the idea of “nation building” by first smashing that nation and then forcefully occupying it is something that 50.7% of Americans (exactly 62,040,610 voters) got behind not too long ago. Sure, it’s an absurd exaggeration to say that walking and reading can save a city, but a sweet spot surely exists between 1) an admittedly ridiculous extreme of physically demonstrating the joys of good health and education, and 2) bombing and occupying another country to ensure our safety.