Reading to Remember

Reading to Remember

Last May, I moved for the second time in a year. Anyone who has moved knows that it’s a special type of hell. My belongings seemingly doubled before my eyes as I attempted to jam everything into so many cardboard boxes and trudge them a whopping 3 blocks south. Such is the life of a city dweller; most Chicagoans have moved once a year for as long as they can remember, and I’m no exception.

At that time, I’d just begun reading Marie Kondo’s now infamous book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Although I still think she could benefit from a deep breath and a bit of therapy, following her parameters for successful decluttering  brought me to a big realization: I desperately needed to pare down my book collection.

Yes, you read that right. Allow me to explain.

I’m a person who loves books more than all other possessions. Since college, I’ve dreamed of having a large and extensive book collection that would transform any apartment into the most magical and cozy of places. For a long time, my primary strategy for achieving that goal was to keep every book I’d ever owned, including textbooks, compilations of works by authors that I detested but had been required reading for some class or another, childhood books that I’d long outgrown, books that I may have liked at one time but whose plot I could no longer recall, books that made no impression on me at all, and so on.

As I stared at my collection, no doubt trying to figure out how to fit it into as few boxes as possible, I realized that at least half of my books fell into those  aforementioned categories—books I had no emotional attachment to, couldn’t really remember, or flat out didn’t like. The most basic of all of Marie Kondo’s decluttering principles is to keep only that which inspires joy. I imagined a library full of only books that I enjoyed, books that inspired and moved me, or taught me something deep and true. I felt my heart flutter.

It took me two full days, but eventually I sorted out the books that didn’t bring me joy, and I donated them. My collection was whittled down to half of what it was. I felt relieved, lighter, truer to who I was as a reader and a writer.

However, throughout this process, I realized that I had also become a very lazy reader. Although it was liberating to clear out my bookshelf, wasn’t it also sad that so much of my reading time had been lost in the ether? Why were there so many books that I simply could not remember?

In The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr suggests not only reading books in your genre, but studying them.

Augment a daily journal with a reading journal. Compose a one-page review with quotes. Make yourself back up opinions. You can’t just say “Neruda is a surrealist”; you have to quote him watching laundry “from which slow dirty tears are falling.” And you have to look up something about surrealism to define it.

Not only does this make you a crisper thinker, according to Karr, but it grounds you in your craft. Plus, I think we’ve all been in a situation where we struggle to relocate an impactful quote from a book we once read. (It took me 15 minutes to track down the quote I cited above, for example. But I’m working on it!)

As part of my year of reading, I resolved not only to read a book a week this year, but to take copious notes. I began in earnest by creating a Reading Bullet Journal.  If you’re at all connected to a planner community, you’ve probably already heard of the Bullet Journal. It’s taken the UK and the US by storm, and I am fully ensconced in it myself. Over the past 9 months, I’ve been using the Bullet Journal system to keep track of every facet of my life—daily appointments, my endless to-do lists, books I’ve read this year, notes about my day, shopping lists, and so on. The best part of bullet journaling is that it’s completely flexible, meaning that its principles can easily be applied to a reading journal. So I started one!

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I kept it simple, writing the title of the book, striking quotes, and a summary after I finished reading. However, as I ramped up to reading a book a week this year, I realized I couldn’t keep up with this handwritten system. For one, I do most of my reading while on public transit. When you have a book in one hand and the other is holding on to a stability pole, there’s not much opportunity for underlining your favorite quotes or jotting down thoughts. Instead, I found myself taking pictures of the pages so I could easily relocate the  quotes I wanted to remember later. In short time, my reading journal became another unopened notebook collecting dust on my shelf, and I was back to square one.

Until I stumbled upon James Clear’s blog post on strategies for retaining more of what you read. I love using an analog method to record my daily world, but I realized the ingenuity of Clear’s suggestions as soon as I finished reading his post. Clear suggests using Evernote—a platform that allows you to keep searchable notes in multiple notebooks across various devices—, or another digital note keeping system to do two things: make notes as you read and summarize the book. Using a digital system makes your notes searchable, and summarizing the book and how it intersects with other books you’ve been reading or subjects you’ve been learning about ensures that you will retain more of what you just read. I started using this system a few weeks ago. When I finish a book, I quickly write a summary, attach my quote pictures, and move on to my next book. This has been so revolutionary for me that it’s as if I finally realized why Evernote exists.

When you’re reading a book a week, your mind quickly makes connections between subjects that are seemingly disparate. It’s the most lovely part of reading so frequently and the part that I can never seem to capture. I’m excited to finally start making these connections in a way that I can easily reference later (or so I hope). To me, the intersection point between disparate ideas is where truly good writing comes from. With this new strategy at hand, I’m hoping to find more of those intersection points and jump into a truly great year of reading and writing.

 

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Five Minute Book Blurb: Why Write?

A few weeks before the new year, I found myself wandering through my local book shop as snow gently floated outside of the store’s big bay window. I’d come with the explicit purpose of selecting the first book to read during my year of writing and reading to come. Less than five minutes into my browsing, Mark Edmundson’s book Why Write? A Master Class on the Art of Writing and Why it Matters seized my attention. “Why write?” the inside cover asked. “Why write when it sometimes feels that so few people really read—read as if their lives might be changed by what they’re reading? Why write, when the world wants to be informed, not enlightened; to be entertained, not inspired?” I nodded so forcefully that my head felt it might bobble off my shoulders. We were only a few weeks out from the worst election in U.S. history, and I couldn’t help but think of a nation obsessed with fake news and Facebook politics. I’d only read the synopsis on the cover, but this book was already speaking my language. So I snatched it up and headed home, excited to crack the cover when the new year, and my year of reading, officially began. Unfortunately, I’d soon discover that my year of reading would not start with a bang, as they say, but with a whimper.

Edmundson begins strong with a beautiful and inspiring foreword. Among other reasons, like learning to think and building up the muscles of your mind, Edmundson says that writing is important because “by coming up with fresh and arresting words to describe the world accurately, the writer expands the boundaries of her world, and possibly her readers’ worlds, too.” Afterwards, Edmundson breaks down the book by reasons you should and should not write along with the pleasures and perils that come with the craft. Each chapter is dedicated to a possible benefit or pitfall with Edmundson using his own reflections, experiences, and interpretations of what other famous writers have said about writing to argue his position.

The first chapters of the book are enjoyable enough; Edmundson discusses the importance of writing, even in a world inundated with the mindless prattlings of everyone on the internet, and reflects upon the difficulty of transitioning from your “habitual self,” which is still thinking about the dishes in the sink and the humdrum tasks of everyday life, to the creative self, which can delve into the words and worlds of your creative mind. Despite these welcome reflections, the book quickly becomes insufferable. Edmundson takes every opportunity to wax poetic about his favorite canonical authors, leaving the reader feeling as if she were stuck in a lecture hall while Edmundson talks in circles about the greatness of old, white men.

At another point, Edmundson retells a story that appears in Rebecca Solnit’s book Men Explain Things to Me. Without crediting the story to Solnit, Edmundson recaps her personal experience with a man who explains the premise of her own book to her, insisting that he knows more about the subject even after he discovers that she’s the author of the book he’s explaining. After his retelling, Edmundson says he’s “not sure [he] believes this one out and out.” I’m sure Solnit would not appreciate the irony of a man explaining her experience to his readers in his own words without so much as mentioning her name or granting credibility to her story. If I didn’t have a book quota to meet, I would’ve snapped the book shut right then and never turned back. One Goodreads reader remarked that “women were an afterthought for Edmundson,” and it certainly seems that Edmundson thought he could cover his bases by citing Emily Dickinson and, on occasion, substituting the masculine pronoun for the feminine one. Unfortunately for Edmundson, his lip service to women can’t cover up his white male privilege.

Despite its many downfalls, Why Write? did offer a few refreshing insights. For example, Edmundson discusses the importance of choosing the right medium for writing, noting that word processors can block our creativity, if only because our words appear so official and well-formatted, like a work that’s already complete the moment the words are written. Instead, he advocates for putting pen to paper when drafting; as a writer that mostly drafts on a computer, I was pleasantly surprised at how composing in a notebook opened the floodgates of my brain and how easy it was to edit my jottings into something more polished as I converted my draft into a typed document.

However, Edmundson’s best argument is for the importance of writing itself. Why write in the age of information overload and rampant skimming? It’s the question that hangs over the whole book. Edmundson argues that writing—good or bad, published or unpublished—preserves the timeline of our lives and is important for that reason alone. “Our writings create constellations[,]” Edmundson say. “They are the way we look back (or look up) and see that we have had a life.” Really, what could be more beautiful than that? Unfortunately, though, a handful of thoughtful or inspiring ideas does not make a remarkable book.

Last year, I moved for the third time in less than three years. As I packed up my belongings, I resolved that, moving forward, I would keep only the books that truly inspired me, books that I’d regularly refer to as a writing handbook of sorts. It’s safe to say that Edmundson’s book will soon find its way to the donation pile.

If you’re interested in books that discuss the craft of writing, I’d highly recommend… Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, which also delves into the importance of writing in the modern world as well as how writing is akin to a spiritual practice.

Typically, I’d also link to a review from a more well-known publication as well, but I couldn’t find any to date. So, for now, I suppose you’re stuck with my opinion.

 

 

What I Learned from a Year of Reading

It’s been a year of transition and learning for this reader/writer/wanderer. Numbed by the most bitterly cold winter of my life and the culture shock that comes from moving between lives and worlds, I embarked on a mission to read a book a week for the entire year. After returning from Ecuador, I’d felt like a stranger blindly wandering through a life that wasn’t entirely mine; reading, I hoped, would help me learn something about why I couldn’t get back to myself, or rather, about the person I had become between leaving for Ecuador and returning to the States.

For a year, I read on the train and in the bus, in doctor’s offices and coffee shops and by the lake, while making dinner and waiting for friends, as I brushed my teeth before bed and during my limited lunch breaks at work. At the beginning, there were many successes; when it’s literally 50 degrees below zero, there’s not much to do other than read. Then summer finally, unbelievably arrived, bringing adventures with friends and family, months of 12-hour work days, entire weeks of binge watching House of Cards and Orange is the New Black on Netflix, and a fantastic new relationship that’s kept me wonderfully distracted. Now, as the temperature wanders back into the negatives, I’m finishing out the year with a total of 37 books, averaging a little more than a book every week and a half of 2014. I didn’t completely achieve my goal, but I did learn a lot along the way. Below are the biggest lessons I learned during my year of reading:

1. My threshold for finishing a book in a week is approximately 250 pages; on average, fear of flying begins at age 27; and the more you replay a memory in your mind, the more cemented it is in your brain.

You learn a wealth of interesting facts when throwing back a book a week. For instance, I learned how the use of memory palaces—or placing visual cues in a mental recreation of a familiar place—facilitates your brain’s ability to recall information. I learned what parts of the brain trigger and manage anxiety and a multitude of strategies for clearing such stimuli from an overtaxed brain. I learned how chickens are sexed. I learned about the history of machismo in Latin America and the altered mental state caused by mourning. I learned what vulnerability looks like in work, study, and relationships and why it’s important in all facets of life. I also learned exactly where in my commute I can balance on my tip toes just long enough to wrestle my book out of or into my bag, an important lesson when packed into a shifting, tilting, herky-jerky train.

As I paged through book upon book, I also began to see themes from previous books reappear time and time again, which brings me to my next lesson….

2. Everything is interconnected, or reading makes you a good conversationalist.

After a mere two months of my reading challenge, I quickly realized that the more I read, the more I had to say to those around me. I discussed the mechanics of memory with my coworkers and the science behind flying with my father who is an active sports pilot. With friends, I marveled over the dark, yet hopeful themes in Saunders’ short stories, themes that moved me to tears even while sitting shoulder to shoulder with strangers on the L. As it turns out, my reading challenge was also great material for first-date conversation and an easy way to tell if I should pursue a second date.

Fun fact: I knew I’d snagged a keeper when my boyfriend confessed that the first book he checked out with his brand new library card was Pride and Prejudice. *Swoon*

3. No TV required.

Before I began my journey in reading, I spent a lot of time watching TV, particularly the low-budget reality trash that fills the MTV and TLC lineups. It’s a terrible habit that I’ve had since college. “No! You’re too smart to watch this trash,” my friends would moan as I turned on the latest episode of Teen Mom or Intervention. At the time, I told myself that I was simply giving my mind a break from studying and the literal hours of news I watched and/or read every day. (Little did I know that TV news media is just a separate but equally terrible and unconscionable form of reality TV.) When I returned to the United States, I also returned to my old reality TV habits. After my forced, long-term separation from reality TV while living in Ecuador, however, I couldn’t mindlessly consume the drivel without noticing how numb and stupid I felt afterwards or the way that society seemed to be lowering itself to meet the bad behavior I’d witnessed on my TV screen. I knew that to feel better in my own skin, I needed to rescue my brain first.

So I turned off the TV and picked up the books, and hot damn did it feel good! I could almost feel my brain cells regenerating with every new page. Of course, I always knew that I didn’t need TV, but the wonderful lesson was that I didn’t even miss it.*  I went months without even touching my remote and this year I plan to cancel my cable completely. Good riddance!

*I’m counting House of Cards and Orange is the New Black as a different kind of TV here, since I feel these series hinge on the same elements you would find in a well-crafted story.

4. Some books shouldn’t be read in a week.

When I picked up Geek Love by Katherine Dunne, I didn’t realize that the book was nearly 400 pages long. I loved the riveting strangeness of the plot, the bizarre, yet relate-able characters, and the richness of the story…until I realized that it was nearly the end of the week and I still had 200 pages to finish. I dutifully forged through the rest of the novel, feeling exhausted and annoyed by the time I finished.

Towards the end of the year, when finishing 52 books was clearly unattainable, I began The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. With no deadline looming over me, I luxuriated in the detail, taking the time to truly contemplate the characters and let the themes percolate in my mind. It was absolutely liberating. This coming year, I’m excited to tackle the fat books that have been gathering dust on my bookshelf since my challenge started, because books are richer when you have the time to get completely lost in the story.

5. Reading begets more reading.

Before this past year, I hadn’t done much reading. Thanks to post-graduate school burnout and the pervasive idleness of Ecuadorian life, I’d forgotten what it truly meant to read for pleasure.

As Malcolm X said, “The ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive.”

After my year of reading, I am more curious, more hungry for knowledge, more passionate about the world around me, and more connected to myself than I have been in a long time. Thanks to a regular regimen of reading, my mind has been fully reawakened, and I have never loved reading as much as I do today.

My increased book consumption naturally led to more online reading as well. I began with lists on good books for 20 somethings, then gradually transitioned to articles about gender, studies on language and memory, and interesting pieces on the mythical concept of work-life balance. As I went through the highs and lows of life, I looked to the written word for guidance. Disappointed and disheartened by the Hobby Lobby ruling, I reflected on Rebecca Traister’s I Don’t Care If You Like It, an article that I still think about with an ache of identification and a surge of determination. After discussing the sometimes dismissive attitudes of male colleagues, a friend recommended an excellent story from NPR, Can Changing How You Sound Help You Find Your Voice?, which empowered me and impacted the way I interact with my coworkers. Exhausted and overworked, I sought solace in I Came Undone and Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed. Anytime I needed a good read in addition to my designated book for the week, I also perused the always excellent Longreads blog.

As I mulled over these concepts, I also realized…

6. We are what we put into our brains.

I am convinced now more than ever that what we put into our brains dictates who we are and what we will become.

This sounds fairly obvious, but it’s easily forgotten when we just need an hour of mind-numbing TV or Facebooking to take off the edge at the end of the day. (See point #3.) As it turns out, Buzzfeed lists, crying reality TV stars, and Candy Crush Saga are easy to consume, but don’t offer the rejuvenation that we truly crave.

Within the first months of my reading challenge, I felt more creative and motivated to write than I had in years. Instead of plopping myself on the couch with leftovers and the TV remote/cell phone, I soothed my tired soul with words. The more I read, the more I wrote and desired to write. My brain was always tired, but, to my surprise, I always felt regenerated by the end of the night.

6. Minor failures do not constitute a total failure.

I may have failed at reading 52 books in a year, but I succeeded at feeling good in my skin again. Books offered me a form of escapism that didn’t numb me; instead it allowed me to examine myself indirectly through the struggles, joys, and life experiences of others, fictional or not. Through books, I found a way to work through the hard parts of my Peace Corps service and the new, sometimes unrecognizable, person I was upon returning. Of course, reading wasn’t the sole factor for my successful reintegration into U.S. culture. Reading grounded me; counseling and the unconditional support of family and friends helped me work through reverse culture shock and rebuild my life in the States. As such, I am eternally grateful for those who dedicate their lives to guiding others through their struggles, for the people in my life who love me through all the ups and downs, and for the writers who take on the risk and hard work of writing about the oddities, struggles, tragedies, mysteries, and complexities of life.

So what’s in store for this blog now that my year of reading is over? As I mentioned in a previous post, 2015 is the year of focus—on the right people, the right goals, and the right projects. This blog, fortunately, is one of the projects that I’ll be dedicating myself to this year. Thanks to a 1.5 hour round trip commute, I’ll have plenty of reading material to reflect on, and given that one of my many New Years resolutions is to finally write a collection of essays, I’ll have plenty of writing insights to share as well. To those who have been reading and commenting, thanks for taking this journey with me; I hope you’ll check back often.

Here’s to a productive and prolific 2015!

A One-Sentence Review of My Favorite Reads of 2014

Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer—A quirky and insightful read about the mechanics of memory, the mysterious nature of the brain, carefully crafting our own perception of our lives, and the often-overlooked importance of forgetting.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion—Using straightforward and simple language, Didion portrays what it truly means to grieve and pay tribute to those we love in images that struck hard and stuck with me long after closing the book.

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold—A magnificently crafted book about the eternal love between family and the horrors of life, portrayed in detail so real and vivid that I dreamt of losing my own sister for nights on end. (Note: That was the worst part of reading the book. This novel is truly excellent.)

Tenth of December by George Saunders—As usual, with great talent and mastery, Saunders shows us the best and worst of humanity, blurring the lines between bad and good and striking both hope and despair in the hearts of his readers.

1984 by George Orwell—Disturbing and impactful, this book made me realize that in a society devoid of freedom of speech and human rights, not even your personal thoughts and memories are safe.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green—A tear-jerker that felt more substantive than many other YA novels I’ve read and truly made me consider the differences between empathy, sympathy, and love, especially in the face of terminal illness.

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg–An encouraging, affirming, and comforting guide on why writing is important, how it spiritually nourishes us, and how to create a life that centers around a daily writing practice.

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Changes the Way  We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown—An insightful look into why vulnerability leads to greater self-fulfillment, better parenting, work successes, and more meaningful relationships and a practical guide on how to bring vulnerability into our everyday lives.

A One-Sentence Review of My Least Favorite Reads of 2014

Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney—Another forgettable book about a self-pitying 20-something wallowing in drugs, alcohol, and despair.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro-Yawn fest.

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg—Although this book contained some nuggets of wisdom, I couldn’t get past Sandberg’s focus on working within the confines of the patriarchy to rise to the top or the in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time luck that contributed to much of her success and therefore greatly separates her from the majority of the working women that she aims to address and motivate.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Marukami—In spite of a very catchy name, Marukami’s book offers mostly train-of-thought observations and lacks the originality and insight that I expected and craved.

For being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realize, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy—a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts. It is an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis in what had once been ordinary life, only to discover that that previous life had vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding. Like pregnancy, being a foreigner, Ashima believes, is something that elicits the same curiosity from strangers, the same combination of pity and respect.

—Jhumpa Lahiria, The Namesake

I don’t know anything about being pregnant, but I’ve never read anything that more accurately describes what it’s like to live in a culture that’s not your own.

I am no longer at the Council on Foreign Relations at Sixty-eighth and Park but sitting across from John at breakfast in the dining room of the Bristol in Paris in November 2003. We are each reading the International Herald Tribune, hotel copies, with little stapled cards showing the weather for the day. The cards for each of those November mornings in Paris showed an umbrella icon. We walked in the rain at the Jardin du Luxembourg. We escaped from the rain into St. Sulpice. There was a mass in progress. John took communion. We caught cold in the rain at the Jardin de Ranelagh. On the flight back to New York John’s muffler and my jersey smelled of wet wool. On takeoff he held my hand until the plane began leveling.

He always did.

Where did that go?

–Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking; I had to take a breather after reading that one, and I’ve thought of that passage every single time I’ve traveled by plane since then.

Our heartache poured into one another like water from cup to cup. Each time I told my story, I lost a bit, the smallest drop of pain. It was that day that I knew I wanted to tell my story to my family. Because horror on Earth is real and it is every day. It is like a flower or like the sun; it cannot be contained.

-Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones

When anybody, no matter how old they are, loses a parent, I think it hurts the same as if you were only five years old, you know? I think all of us are always five years old in the presence and absence of our parents.”

–Sherman Alexie, The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Born to Run? Maybe. Love to Run? Yes.

It occurred to me a month ago, while on a short practice run before the 5.3k I planned to run a few days later, that I’ve been running for over a year now. If you had asked me just two years ago if I’d ever envisioned myself as a runner, you’d first get a loud and incredulous laugh and then an emphatic no. For as long as I can remember (before this past year), I’ve hated running. As a child, I stuck to sports that involved little to no running, like softball and volleyball. I absolutely loathed the “fun runs” that our high school P.E. teacher required us to suffer through—for a grade no less!—and no matter how many people talked about that “epic runner’s high” that comes after  pounding the pavement, I could never fathom why anybody would want to put themselves through such misery.

I still deeply hated running when I first heard Christopher McDougall talking on the radio during the long drive between Kansas and my parents’ house in 2009. Deep in the middle of Bible thumping territory, where your selection of radio stations narrows to painfully hopeful Christian music, angry preachers delivering hell fire and damnation, and twangy country ballads, I stumbled upon McDougall talking about his now famous book Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. I was quickly enveloped in the interview as McDougall described the never-ending list of running injuries that had permanently placed him on the DL list and his amazing journey to discover both the secret of running and the most legendary runners in the world: the Tarahumara Indians. I looked out over the miles of road slipping below my tires, but what I saw before me were the bare feet of the Tarahumara shuffling over the jagged trails of the Copper Canyons, McDougall and his motley crew of superathletes jouncing over dirt roads in a beat up Mexican bus, and the shoe-clad feet of the superathletes lined toe-to-bare toe with the Tarahumara before the epic 50-mile race that serves as the book’s climax.

When I finally sat down this spring to read McDougall’s full account of the ultramarathon that took place between the Tarahumara and his team of world-renowned super runners, the experience was much different than I anticipated. Now a runner myself, I expected to love every page, to be fully convinced and riveted by every magical word. Instead, I found myself alternately enthralled and turned off by McDougall’s story, my reactions as severe and extreme as the Copper Canyons where most of the book is set. In a sentence, Born to Run is a love letter to running riddled with medical studies, running history, and personal anecdotes. Although the tale McDougall weaves is a compelling one, his sometimes movie-esque writing style and inclination for cliff hangers often had me wondering about the authenticity of the book’s happenings. By the time I finished the book, I found that everything I’d read could be safely filed into two categories: things I’d like to believe  and things I know to be absolutely true.

Things I’d Like to Believe

In this first category is a theme that McDougall touches on frequently throughout the book: running makes us better people. While describing the life and career of Joe Vigil, an Olympic running coach, McDougall writes about this philosophy, one which he obviously shares.

“Vigil couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but his gut kept telling him that there was some kind of connection between the capacity to love and the capacity to loverunning. The engineering was certainly the same: both depending on loosening your grip on your own desires, putting aside what you wanted and appreciating what you got, being patient and forgiving and undemanding…. Perhaps all our troubles—all the violence, obesity, illness, depression, and greed we can’t overcome—began when we stopped living as Running People. Deny your nature and it will erupt in some other, uglier way.” 

After reading that, who wouldn’t want to take up running, right? Throughout the book, McDougall uses various case studies and tribal histories to illustrate that we are born-to-be runners trapped in a modern, mostly sedentary culture. While the science is interesting enough, I was never fully convinced by its folklore-like nature or the way that McDougall substitutes hodged podged information for solid facts. I personally found one of McDougall’s subthemes to be far more realistic and believable: running promotes emotional intelligence. Although that exact phrase never appears on the page, it’s a theme that McDougall alludes to over and over again. He tells stories of numerous super athletes who somehow manage to do the undo-able—run hundreds of miles in deadly heat or finish marathons while consuming nothing but beer and pizza along the way, for example—and after each account, he returns to the same theory.

“Suffering is humbling. It pays to know how to get your butt kicked…. Beyond the very extreme of fatigue and distress, we may find amounts of ease and power we never dreamed ourselves to own; sources of strength never taxed at all because we never push through the obstruction.”

As a new runner—after a year of steady practice, I’ve finally allowed myself the title—I’d like to believe that running cultivates a tolerance for pain and an unfailing physical and emotional endurance unseen in non-runners. Running certainly helped me endure my last painful months in Ecuador, where my running story coincidentally began. Despite the altitude and my constant inability to really catch my breath, I didn’t find it to be so miserable anymore. But then again, I knew a little bit more about misery by then. Other runners and writers have certainly ascribed to this idea, too. As Haruki Murakami so elegantly states in his running-themed memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

Of course, McDougall’s most controversial claims center around his now infamous assertions that “running shoes may be the most destructive force to ever hit the human foot.”  The author makes a solid and believable case for the benefits of barefoot running. It’s not hard to imagine that major shoe companies would exploit runners by peddling overly-fabricated shoes that actually exacerbate running injuries rather than prevent them. However, McDougall’s sardonic tone paired with the large scale barefoot running movement that was born after the book’s release—a movement that undoubtedly generated a significant sum of money for multiple big name shoe companies—does seem a bit suspect. Unfortunately, those claims along with the hodge podge science I mentioned earlier left me with the nagging suspicion that McDougall’s love for running may not have been his only motivation for writing the book.

Things I Know to Be True

Even as I dismissed some of the author’s more extreme claims, I found myself deeply identifying with the few nuggets of truth gleaming amid the exaggerated facts and heavy-handed cliff hangers. Throughout the book, running is portrayed as an ethereal, peaceful, and even sensuous act.  My favorite description of running comes from one of the female super athletes who describes the feeling she experiences while running as something akin to a romance: 

“But yeah, Ann insisted, running was romantic; and no, of course her friends didn’t get it because they’d never broken through. For them, running was a miserable two miles motivated solely by size 6 jeans: get on the scale, get depressed, get your headphones on, and get it over with. But you can’t muscle through a five-hour run that way; you have to relax into it, like easing your body into a hot bath, until it no longer resists the shock and begins to enjoy it. Relax enough, and your body becomes so familiar with the cradle-rocking rhythm that you almost forget you’re moving. And once you break through to that soft, half-levitating flow, that’s when the moonlight and champagne show up: ‘You have to be in tune with your body, and know when you can push it and when to back off,’ Ann would explain. You have to listen closely to the sound of your own breathing; be aware of how much sweat is beading on your back; make sure you treat yourself to cool water and salty snack and ask yourself, honestly and often, exactly how you feel. What could be more sensual than paying exquisite attention to your own body?” 

Before this book, romantic isn’t the word I would’ve used to describe running, but I, too, have been lulled into that “cradle-rocking rhythm,” so comfortable that your mind wanders to another place and you barely even realize that you’re moving.  When I run, I find myself in a place void of stress and worry, to-do lists and rushed dinner preparations, corporate criticisms and pressures. For me, running is almost like meditating. As another featured super athlete explains:

“’When I’m out on a long run…the only thing in life that matters is finishing the run. For once, my brain isn’t going blehblehbleh all the time. Everything quiets down, and the only thing going on is pure flow. It’s just time and the movement and the motion. That’s what I love—just being a barbarian, running through the woods.’”

Running has gotten me through painful breakups, debilitating pre-interview nervousness, post bad-work-day frustrations, and relentless culture shock anxiety. Even when I fall out of my running routine for a few days (or weeks, let’s be real), I always come back to it, because running quiets down all the extraneous noise in my life and allows me to think about nothing but my own body, the way I feel right in that moment, and the deep calm that comes with just breathing in and out.

Perhaps the brightest nugget of truth is this: “Ask nothing from your running, and you’ll get more than you ever imagined!”

I started running during my last five months in Ecuador. Not to take on the prestigious title of runner, but to train for my four day hike on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, which I had planned to do with my sister in late August. I figured: What better way to prepare for hiking at altitude than to run at altitude? For five months before our expedition, I ran in Loja’s various parks and the city soccer stadium, sometimes passing others—like the Loja police recruits—but, more often, watching others pass me—usually aspiring Olympic speedwalkers. (It’s true. I couldn’t make this up.) I wasn’t running for those size 6 jeans or to improve my already abysmal mile time. I was simply hoping to shield myself against altitude sickness and that paralyzing feeling of desperation that comes when you are in the middle of nowhere and feel like you just can’t take one more step. I had no expectations for my running other than to simply go out and do it, even if that meant taking walking breaks between sprints.  Five months later, I spent four glorious days on the Inca Trail with my sister, and neither of us got altitude sickness. 

To everyone’s surprise, including my own, I continued running even after moving back home to the States. It was still humid and miserable in early September, but my love for running somehow grew and grew. As McDougall said, I asked nothing from my running, and yet I got so much in return: an outlet for stress, patience with myself and others, self-discipline that I never knew I had, the ability to let go of my perfectionism and be proud of both my long and small runs, and more than anything, joy in simply stretching my legs and pushing forward.

For me, writing a novel is like climbing a steep mountain, struggling up the face of the cliff, reaching the summit after a long and arduous ordeal. You overcome your limitations, or you don’t, one or the other. I always keep that inner image with me as I write.

—Haruki Marukami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Adventures in Reading or the Perils of Reading on Public Transportation

Before this year’s personal reading challenge, I never considered reading on public transit a particularly perilous action. I’ve certainly done more perilous things on the train, like force myself through the inch gap between the train doors when they refused to open or pile into an already crowded train car where personal space is nonexistent and oxygen is limited. However, I’ve found that reading on the train can lead to any number of awkward, embarrassing, confusing, or otherwise perilous situations. Before bringing your most recent literary obsession on the bus or train, ask yourself if you are willing to experience one or all of the following risky happenings:

Falling on people

It never fails. You’re standing on the train during the morning rush hour, trying to get to the end of that last, suspenseful chapter before work, and the minute you reach down to turn the page, the train jerks around the corner. That’s right. One minute you’re flipping to the next exciting sentence and the next you’re reeling backwards onto some poor, unsuspecting phone gazer. This is the life of a public reader.

In the course of 5 months, I’ve fallen on three people and kicked another. (For some reason, when I’m falling, my first instinct is to kick out my leg in an attempt to steady myself and regain my balance. Thus far, that strategy has failed 100% of the time.)

This is a warning for book lovers and the non-readers who stand around them: pay attention. It will happen when you least expect it.

Missing your stop

More than once I’ve been burning through the pages, so caught up in the most gripping part of my book that I forget that I’m even on the train. Believe me, that’s generally a good thing. Or at least it is until I look up, realize I’ve gone two stops too far, and I’m now officially twenty minutes late for work or brunch with friends or a doctor’s appointment. On the bright side, though, you can continue reading while you wait for the train that will take you two stops in the opposite direction.

Crying in public

Books make me feel things. Really deep, emotional things. Unfortunately, when the majority of your reading occurs during your commute to and from work, you end up feeling really deep, emotional things while standing shoulder to shoulder with complete strangers.  Last week, my eyes began to well up with tears as I read one of the most emotional parts of Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I tried to play it cool, casually dabbing at the corner of my eye as if it were merely a speck of dust or an eyelash that was causing it to water. When I looked across the train, though, I found a guy staring back at me with a concerned look on his face.

Busted.

I happened to be on an Amtrak train when I finished The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. I didn’t even bother playing it cool then. Instead, I flipped the book shut, looked out the window, and just let the tears come down while the guy next to me desperately tried not to notice.

Being Judged

When you read on public transportation, you invite everyone sitting around you to judge you simply based on the title of the book you happen to be holding. This is more a warning for everyone else, since I happen to have excellent taste in literature. Yeah, I see you, Fifty Shades of Grey reader. I’m judging you so hard. 

Getting Caught Awkwardly Staring While Trying to See What Someone Else is Reading (or Admiring the Reader)

If you read on public transit, it’s likely that you’re interested in seeing what others are reading on public transit. Or perhaps you can’t take your eyes off the person reading the book. Really, what’s more attractive than a good looking guy or girl reading a good book? Admiring a book or its reader is all fine and dandy until you get caught staring. Of course, it might not be so awkward if you are social enough to pull off a quick one-liner, like, “Is that a good book?” or “I see you’re reading X author. Do you like her stuff?”  Me? I just quickly look away and pretend that it never happened.

Moral of the story: Reading on public transportation is risky business and you never know when danger could befall you. Stay safe out there, fellow readers.