On Walking and Reading at the Same Time

September 1, 2009 | 2 books mentioned 20 3 min read

Hiking is the only form of exercise I actually enjoy. Luckily, I live a mile from the San Gabriel mountains with their tangle of steep trails. In the last year, as I’ve hiked, I have begun listening to stories and novels on my iPhone, and this has transformed an enjoyable pastime into a deep pleasure. Recently I described my new habit to another novelist, who recoiled, shaking her head. “I’m a firm believer in the imaginative space created by the printed page,” she said.

So what about the imaginative space created by the audible page?

Of course, sitting and reading, lying down and reading, chaise lounging and reading are lovely; the body is still, eyes scan the page, the brain avails itself of the printed words, interior worlds bloom. Scientists tell us that, when reading, we have the same, if muted, responses to described or dramatized experience as we do to the real thing. Muscles tense. Hearts pound. Tears well.

If I am seated or reclining and still, I much prefer reading the printed page. Being read to is too passive an activity, I’m apt to get restless or, worse, fall asleep.

Walking, however, my listening capabilities are enhanced; simple physical activity, I believe, sharpens concentration by occupying the senses just enough to allow a purer attention to the narrative.

In this sense, walking is like doodling and knitting, which busy the hands and free the mind. (I always wondered why my grandmother loved to knit as she watched TV.) When hiking, I’m watching my step, I’m noting wildflowers, poison oak, the view; I’m keeping an eye on the dog, looking out for snakes; meanwhile, my deeper attention is engaged with the story leaking from my ear buds.

I have listened to news podcasts, and interviews, but these tend to make me mutter and twitch. Narrative and walking—as Chaucer knew—are a fortuitous match. They twin beautifully; listeners follow the plot, the thread, the branching path. Words and heartbeats, sentences and breaths, steps and plot align in ever new, complementary rhythms.

And there is another result: the landscape becomes festooned with fictional memories.

I remember, always with a pang, exactly where, on the trail, Katherine Mansfield’s valiant, plucky fly finally succumbed after his fourth bath in ink. A series of uphill switchbacks evokes the astonishing description of a young man’s madness in Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols” read sentence by perfect sentence by Mary Gaitskill:

Clouds in the staring sky transmit to one another, by means of slow signs, incredibly detailed information regarding him. His inmost thoughts are discussed at nightfall, in manual alphabet, by darkly gesticulating trees.

I don’t remember where I read the physical books I read. I must have read them somewhere—in bed, on the couch, in chairs about the yard.

On the other hand, I recall precisely how I climbed up and down a steep fire road as the Earnshaws and Lintons moved back and forth between Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights. And right where the road curves behind the mountain, I became so maddened by Catherine Linton’s hysteria—today, she’d rate as borderline—that I pressed pause and stamped down the mountain in far preferable silence. (I recovered and later listened to the end, although I will always associate the book with a certain prickling of irritation—whether at the dry dusty summer heat of the hike or Nellie Dean’s meddling.)

coverA rocky switchback on a different trail recalls “Lawyer Kraykowski’s Dancer,”Witold Gombrowicz’s obsessive stalker who responds to insult as most of us respond to tender endearment. That madman shares those uphill miles with the more benignant huffing and sputtering Mr. Panks—not to mention the debtors prison and the Office of Circumlocution, the mild Mr. Clennam, the sweetness of Little Dorrit, the Madoff-like ruin of Mr. Merdle—40 hours of hiking with Little Dorrit claims a broad swath of ground.

coverAt the gates of an old estate I wept at the last paragraphs of Alice Adam’s “Roses, Rhododendron.” By a one-mile marker, I wept as Tobias Woolf read Stephanie Vaughan’s “Dog Heaven.” And here in my own neighborhood, a green-tiled house is inextricably tied to the moment when, on a quick walk, I listened as Michael Henchard, bedeviled by rum at a country fair, sold his young wife (and child) to the highest bidder in the very first chapter of The Mayor of Casterbridge.

Thus, miles are walked, books are read and the landscape is littered with dialogue and description, desolation, striving and love. Literary moments are overlaid on views, scattered along the trail, and hung like ornaments on the rocks and bushes, the slow clouds and darkly gesticulating trees.

Resources for reading and walking: Miette’s Bedtime Story Podcasts, New Yorker Fiction Podcasts, and Audible Books.

is a novelist whose most recent books are Blame and Off Course.


  1. This is lovely, Ms. Huneven, and perhaps is one of those cases of a technology finding its ideal purpose (the way Marshall McLuhan suggests that the best application for the telephone is teaching). Often, I feel like what my laptop/iPod/cellphone are doing is pulling me out of the world, creating anxiety, but I share your sense that walking and narrative (like music and driving) is a pairing that pulls us deeper into the world.

  2. I don’t listen to audiobooks. Not from any puritanical anti-audiobook bias, it’s just not my thing. If I did listen to audiobooks, however, I can’t see myself listening while on a hike in a natural area. I like hearing the birds/wind/insects/etc.

  3. I’ve been enjoying hiking up to Echo Mountain while listening to podcasts of all sorts, mostly from the npr.org crowd from Fresh Air to Motley Fool and recently HowStuffWorks.com. I even listened as I hiked up Half Dome in Yosemite, since I’m slower than my hiking companions and this helped me pass the time as I hiked alone, which I totally enjoy.
    But I like the idea of some fiction choices. A lovely essay, and inspiring as well.

  4. I would listen to the New Yorker fiction podcast and Selected Shorts whilst doing data entry when I worked at my part-time job and it made that time much more bearable. The Tobias Wolff one you mentioned was particularly beautiful. Living in NYC, my natural options are more limited but I’ll give one of these a try next time I’m strolling in Prospect Park. Thanks for the wonderful post!

  5. Hey, what about walking and actually reading, as in out of ye olde fashioned book? The summer I turned 16 I read Crime and Punishment while walking an hour both ways to piano lessons, four days a week. I’ve never talked to so many people in my life: every block, people would call from their porches, lean out car windows, turn from the gas pump and say, “Hey, whatcha reading?” You’d think they’d never seen a human read in public before.

  6. As an audiobook narrator, it’s wonderful to see how people use and listen to audioboks. And I agree! I love listening to audiobooks (not my own!) when I’m walking or jogging….

  7. A great article. As an author ( crime fiction and business books) which are also in audio book format, I find this most encouraging. I too am a walker – in the UK -and a knitter and find that both help me work through my plots – especially when I am at a difficult stage of the crime novels. I can let my mind go into freefall at the same time as doing something productive ( knitting a jumper) and getting beneficial exercise, walking. Though I don’t yet do all three at the same time, or should I say four – now that would be a feat!

  8. Michelle’s right on–audiobooks and walking are a terrific combination. With a great narrator you ‘travel’ farther than your feet can take you. Imagination, imagery, the music of the language and dialects can fill your mind, but not detract from a natural setting. I just listened to an Agatha Christie story and spent an hour in a charming English village as I walked the streets to work!

  9. Beautiful post – it inspires me to walk more often (hiking difficult where I live), the whole package becomes attractive.
    I listen to podcasts – on my way back home from work, in the cab – as other users said, new yorker fiction…and sometimes economist podcasts. But the story by Nabokov…and another one which talked about the protagonists’ list of books to read…have been etched to certain places, crossings, signboards I gazed at while waiting for the trafic to clear. Music is another companion but a great option for short fiction when reading a book is difficult. And it stimulates imagination in a slightly different way than just reading does; bound to, with two stimuli – the writer and the narrator.
    Some time back, I started reading aloud and recording fragments of some poems by Eliot, Cummings on the phone so when I feel a need for some sprinkling of the interesting in the humdrum, the listen is just a touch away.

  10. 1. I love your new novel “Blame.” Thank you for writing it.
    2. I own a bookstore in Milwaukee. For the front of our in-store event flyer for July, I wrote an essay on walking and reading, with the high-point being almost bumping into another person in Milwuakee who was also walking and reading. And let’s just say the odds of that, based on the number of folks walking the streets of downtown Milwaukee at any time but weekday lunch and on a festival weekend, are slim to none. Now that I think of it, it isn’t indexed anywhere.

  11. Thanks for this wonderful essay. There are so many devoted audiobook fans, but it’s so hard to convince some readers to try audiobooks. Your essay couldn’t have said it better. However, I was surprised to see that you didn’t mention the great audiobook resources at public libraries. In particular, a valuable source for finding downloadable audiobooks at a libraries in the U.S. is at http://search.overdrive.com.

  12. So true! I’ve read hundreds of books while walking, gardening, and cooking over the years. A fabulous combination. Especially with digital downloads and very light mp3 players.

  13. Ah, your lead has my follow, and paths pace seems suited to meranderings of the mind, but not to miss nature’s sound— And what is so rare as a day in June? Then if ever come perfect days, Then Heaven tries earth if it be in tune, and over it softly her warm ear lays.
    Love your work– Bravo!

  14. Nice article.
    I stumbled upon it by googling ‘are audio books only for the blind’.
    I’d listened to a few podcasts, mostly comedy, whilst walking in the countryside just outside Dublin, Ireland. Any previous experience with spoken word audio resulted in my falling asleep within minutes and never getting a good feeling of the story.
    But I recently listened to Craig Ferguson’s An American On Purpose during my walks and I was blown away both by the book and the idea that I could learn whilst exercising.
    Great news! I really looked forward to my next 100 minute walk to get the next thrilling instalment.
    Also, I’ve started to write a bit myself lately, so it’s good to hear different styles of writing spoken out loud. Whether or not I continue this practice remains to be seen as I’ll probably get withdrawal symptoms from lack of music which is pretty much my life passion.

  15. “The landscape becomes festooned with fictional memories.” Oh, so well said, Michelle. What a fantastic blog entry!

    In read my Kindle while I walk, and have found that going around my local high school track works well, particularly along the outer, rather than inner, edge for a smooth, graceful curve that allows an obstruction-free walk. I discovered that, when I was away from home and there was no track on which to walk, walking a straight line in an open field at a park works well, too. It would be rather mind-numbing to walk out and back in a long field repeatedly without a book, but with one–joyful! Exercise body and mind at the same time!

    Stephen King, it is said, is an avid walk-reader. Thanks again. Sven.

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