By Nara Schoenberg
October 20, 2013
Have you seen AT&T's running-with-books TV commercial? Olympic marathoner Ryan Hall starts up “The Odyssey” audiobook on his smartphone and proceeds to listen and run for hours under a cloudless blue sky down a tree-lined country road, through a neat suburban neighborhood, under a train track, over a bridge, and onto a red dirt path that unfurls along a lonely stretch of railroad track. Here, he pauses, but only to queue up his next book, “Moby-Dick.” That ad has nothing to do with me.
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Oh, I listen to books while running too, and I appreciate the spirit in which the 2012 ad was intended, but if I've learned anything in 20 years of slow and uninspired book-jogs, it's that I can enjoy challenging literature and I can exercise on a regular basis, but I cannot do both at the same time.
When it comes to print books, I'm all for depth, complexity and subtlety. Alice Munro? Jane Smiley? Leo Tolstoy? Bring it on. But when I'm clumping down the street in the blazing sun or icy wind, I want instant gratification — the literary equivalent of a hot fudge brownie sundae with whipped cream and, oh, I don't know, maybe a drizzle of homemade caramel.
I want a well-written romance ("The Witness" by Nora Roberts), an up-all-night best-seller ("The Husband's Secret") or fleet and fun-filled literary fiction ("Where'd You Go, Bernadette"). Right now I'm kind of resenting the thin characters and violence-driven plot of "The Kitchen House," the best-seller about a white servant raised by slaves on a Southern plantation, but I'm loving the way the story hums right along, propelling me forward when I want to break pace and slink back home.
Audiobook runners run to different books for different reasons, but I'm willing to bet that distraction is a popular theme.
"You can get lost in the story a little bit and forget that [running] hurts," says David Niall Wilson, author of "Nevermore — A Novel of Love, Loss, & Edgar Allan Poe" and a former president of the Horror Writers Association.
Wilson allows that some great works of literature are not ideally suited to running — "If it was James Joyce, I might not try that" — and he recommends against tackling books that are particularly long.
"I did that once and it seemed like I ran the whole summer listening to the same book, and it became almost the same kind of drudgery as running itself," he says.
"I really liked the book and if I hadn't I wouldn't have finished it, but it was horrifyingly long."
Of course, if you're like BookPage contributing editor Sukey Howard, a 40-mile-a-week runner who ran part of her second marathon listening to a mystery, these rules may not apply. Howard, who reviews audiobooks, refuses to draw distinctions, saying a good book makes a good audiobook.
She's run to the novel "The Testament of Mary," an ambitious reimagining of the crucifixion of Jesus, and Salman Rushdie's memoir "Joseph Anton," and she's currently eyeing the audiobook of the new presidential biography, "Wilson," by A. Scott Berg.
"I used to think I needed something fast-paced, like a thriller, to keep me going, but it's not true," she says.
There have been times when I've tried to run to more demanding literature, but the experiment has not been a success. I absorbed only enough of Jonathan Franzen's deceptively simple novel "The Corrections" to realize I was missing a great book. Even Elmore Leonard's delightful crime novels were too demanding for me. With the exception of "Get Shorty," which probably falls into the brownie sundae category of literature, Leonard asks more of me in terms of attention and intellect than my jogging alter-ego is willing to give.
I recently considered running to Jane Smiley's "A Thousand Acres," and I'm so glad I didn't. The book was up-all-night great, but I wouldn't have enjoyed running during the long, leisurely descriptive passages, and the fine points of character, guilt and innocence would have utterly lost on me.
The book is also, well, dark — a characteristic that I very much appreciate when I'm relaxing in the comfort of my own living room, but which I can do without when I'm duty-jogging in the pouring rain. When I'm running, I want a book to be a charming acquaintance who comes bearing great gossip, not a close friend seeking a new perspective on a thorny problem.
Running with books, as far as I can tell, is rare. Howard, who reviews audiobooks for BookPage, hasn't noted any upswing despite the dazzling array of titles available in recent years and advances in technology that make the practice far less cumbersome.
The Chicago Area Runners Association couldn't locate any book-runners for me to interview, and Howard, who reads Runner's World magazine, says she doesn't recall a single article on audiobooks.
"I think really serious runners frown on it," she says. "They think you're not concentrating on the running, you're not concentrating on form and pace and why you're out there."
Still, running with books seems a natural for those of us who read with gusto and exercise with misgivings.
Howard says mysteries are a good starting point, if mysteries are your thing. If you like nonfiction, she recommends starting with something exciting; she's a fan of "The Boys in the Boat," about a University of Washington's rowing team that fought an against-all-odds battle for gold at the 1936 Olympics.
In separate and very different interviews, both Howard and Wilson recommended the new J.K. Rowling mystery, "The Cuckoo's Calling," written under the pen name Robert Galbraith.
"It's a really good book and it's perfectly paced for running," says Wilson.
"Mysteries and things like that, things that have a little action but aren't big long mysteries that you have to really, really concentrate on [are good]. I think series books are probably really good. I've listened to a lot of the Harry Dresden novels while running, too, but that's because he's my competition, so I have to keep up."
Howard was very impressed by the first Harry Potter book, as narrated by the Tony Award-winning actor Jim Dale. She's also a fan of "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" by Michael Chabon, Louise Penny's Chief Inspector Gamache mysteries and anything by John le Carré.
"He reads his most recent book himself, and it is fabulous," Howard says. "He is one of the best readers ever."
My own favorites include "Bernadette," utterly charming in the reading by actress Kathleen Wilhoite, and "Me Before You" by Jojo Moyes, a compulsive page-turner (foot-mover?) about an unambitious young woman who lands a job caring for a bitter paraplegic.
I'm not much interested in teen angst, which is too bad because my run-reading tastes are otherwise very much in line with the plot-driven intensity of young adult literature.
But I did adore the best-selling YA novel, "The Fault in Our Stars," about a smart-mouthed teen who finds love in a cancer support group.
It's been a long time since I've pursued my interest in popular fiction, but book-running has forced me to do that. I've read a young adult book for the first time since "Twilight" — and I've discovered authors who write really thought-provoking, accessible books about love and family.
If subtleties are lost on me when I run, a great phrase or moment will stand out in bold relief. Bernadette's gloriously grouchy line about how Dale Chihuly's glass sculptures are the omnipresent "pigeons of Seattle" falls into that category, as does an utterly unexpected eulogy that the heroine delivers in "The Fault in Our Stars." I'm an impatient reader, but when I'm running, I'm forced not to skip or skim, but to allow stories to unfold in their own time.
I sometimes remember places where I "read" an audiobook — a strip of Lake Michigan shoreline, a neighborhood park, and that fixes the experience in my mind in a surprisingly satisfying way.
I'm not saying that reading on the run is better than stationary reading. But it has its own rewards, and it gets me out of the house in the morning — motivated, reasonably mobile, and eager to know what will happen next.
Nara Schoenberg is Tribune lifestyles reporter.
Reads worth a run
→"The Yiddish Policemen's Union" by Michael Chabon
→"The Fault in Our Stars" by John Green
→"A Delicate Truth" by John le Carré
→"The Husband's Secret" by Liane Moriarty
→"Me Before You" by Jojo Moyes
→"Still Life" by Louise Penny
→"The Witness" by Nora Roberts
→"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" by J.K. Rowling
→"The Cuckoo's Calling" by Robert Galbraith (aka J. K. Rowling)
→"Where'd You Go, Bernadette" by Maria Semple
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