We all know the ability to walk and chew gum at the same time is a rare talent. But what about walking and reading? This seems a rather more mundane ability, if the number of New Yorkers that indulge in the act of simultaneous perambulation and literary consumption is any indicator. This city’s sidewalks are broad and pedestrian-friendly, and thus, indulgent of the mindfully-distracted stroller, one that covers blocks by the dozen, all the while consuming pages by the mile. If the tourist in New York is easily detected by the upward craned neck, the resident is easily spotted by the insouciant burying of face in tome. While I am normally extremely intolerant of the pedestrian that is distracted by the smartphone–texting while walking seems to inspire a particularly over-the-top reaction from me–I am far more indulgent of the mobile reader; I think most New Yorkers are too.
There are variants, of course. Book-reading while walking is far more common than newspaper- or magazine reading, for instance. I’ve never seen schoolkids stroll down a sidewalk while cramming for exams. I have though, seen graduate students walk back to their apartments from the subway station while finishing off journal articles. And I have, many a time, caught in the middle of a page, a paragraph, or a sentence, as the subway pulls up at the station, simply stood up, book in hand, walked out, and resumed reading. Till an appropriate point for interruption suggests itself; I have never quite managed to muster up the courage required to walk all the way home from my current station; that journey involves six crossings, and I simply wouldn’t dare.
For my money, the best public and collective display of walking while reading I’ve witnessed took place in my boarding school years. Then, just before year-end exam time, the school’s main athletic field would feature dozens of blazer-and-tie-clad schoolboys, each carrying a textbook, diligently marking time and laps as they walked, face immersed in a soon-to-be-turned page, each desperately seeking to imbibe as much of its wisdom before the moment of recapitulation and examination presented itself. From a distance it looked like some ancient Benedictine ritual: monks navigating a monastery compound, each absorbed, perhaps, by some recent exegesis of the Scriptures. I took part in this little ritual too; I read histories of medieval India, Midsummer Night’s Dream, collections of short stories (Never a science or math texbook, of course; it was understood that those could not be consumed in this fashion, but rather, had to be “worked through” with paper and pen handy.)
What has remained common to my New-York-City-sidewalk- and schoolday acts of literary peripateticism is the giddiness caused by the appreciation of the recklessness of the act: here I am, head down, charging into the unknown, not deigning to see what lies ahead, consumed by the printed word. In a world where distraction is so commonplace, where we do not have time to stand and stare, but plenty to check email again and again, it almost feels subversive to pay so much attention to the printed word in the midst of all that is hectic and impatient.