Writing and walking: “Philip Roth would punctuate his morning work with a five-mile walk.”

From a Books of the Times column by Parul Sehgal headlined “These Writers Always Got In Their Steps”:

Here’s a time capsule from a foreign era.

In 2014, a BBC article bewailed “The Slow Death of” — wait. You fill in the gap. Where does your mind lead you, here in the depths of 2020? “The Slow Death of Democracy”? “The Climate”? “Your Savings”? “Communal Life”?

No; the headline lamented “The Slow Death of Purposeless Walking”. . . .

And yet, in our plague year, a new book — Matthew Beaumont’s passionate, profoundly chaotic “The Walker” — again grouses about how we walk, where and why, this time connecting the changes in our gait to the transformation of our cities and social bonds. . . .

Writing and walking have shared a long association. Dickens thought nothing of tramping 30 miles into the country for breakfast — and that after long nights traversing London, composing on the fly. He might have crossed paths with Thomas De Quincey, who floated over the city on opium fumes. The serious walkers of our era include Philip Roth, who would punctuate his morning work with a five-mile walk. In almost any weather, you’ll still see Vivian Gornick flying down Seventh Avenue for her afternoon constitutional.

When they’re not walking, writers are busy extolling walking, frothing on about creativity and movement. I wonder if it isn’t because they’re a little embarrassed about how much time they spend sitting. No treatises to that, you’ll notice, their real specialty.

Schopenhauer described walking as “a continuously checked falling.” Is writing any different? What distinguishes Beaumont’s book, for its doggedly narrow focus, is how it mimics — in form, excess, annoyance — the very experience it extols, of moving through the city. Here is the city at high summer, all volume and amplitude, polyphony, frantic pitch. Here is the pleasure of gawking, the pleasure of having one’s senses overwhelmed, the pleasure of critique. We never move through a city without feeling a little proprietary exasperation, a little utopian: How could our journey be improved, be made better, fairer, more beautiful?

The Walker
On Finding and Losing Yourself in the Modern City
By Matthew Beaumont
Illustrated. 320 pages. Verso. $29.95.

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