Reading on the Treadmill

As I’ve noted numerous times before, summer’s heat forces me from the street to the more temperate environment of “the gym,” where I work out on various weight machines, exercise on an elliptical machine, and walk on a treadmill.

In addition to cooler temperatures (and no risk of sun damage), this arrangement has the distinct advantage that I can read while walking. When I first started going to the gym, I took a magazine or occasionally a library book, but since acquiring a Kindle last May, I have found it ideal for the purpose.

Being the cheapskate that I am, I have not yet brought myself to pay to download any book that I can just as easily check out of the library, but there are plenty of books available in Kindle editions that are free or nearly so (so far I haven’t paid more than 99¢ for any book).

I had been skeptical about the Kindle, a gift that I wasn’t really sure I wanted, but the first book made a believer of me. My first full-length download was Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, “intended,” I wrote in my book log, “to get me comfortable with the device and to see whether I would be able to become engrossed in a digital-format volume.” Although the book was “at times tedious and turgid,” the Kindle passed the test: “I found, the first time I took it to the gym, that I became so engrossed that I overshot my mark on the treadmill, which certainly says something both about the book and about the functionality of the Kindle.”

From there I went on a Mark Twain binge. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is the Alabama “Big Read” selection for 2010, and I’d read it (in hard copy) in March. In May I followed up with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; in June I read Tom Sawyer Abroad and Tom Sawyer, Detective. Then I embarked on The Innocents Abroad, which I finished in early August. All this time I was reading many other books in hard copy, from the library, but this was my Kindle reading at the gym.

My husband was pursuing much the same tack—Ivanhoe, The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Count of Monte Cristo. I cast about for other forgotten classics I should read or reread and hit on Treasure Island. I discovered that I had almost certainly not read this before, and it proved to be very compelling. I followed it with Kidnapped, The Wrong Box (a longtime favorite), and finally Catriona (orDavid Balfour), the sequel to Kidnapped. I’m currently engrossed in The Black Arrow.

If anyone doubted that Robert Louis Stevenson knew how to write page-turners, my statistics are conclusive: when I started going to the gym, I’d put in 10 minutes on the elliptical machine and another 20 or so on the treadmill. I still can’t manage more than 10 minutes on the elliptical , but now I often walk 40–45 minutes trying to reach a good stopping point!

There are certain hazards, however. There is an episode in Tom Sawyer Abroad when Tom and Huck’s balloon is traveling over the Sahara Desert and they have run out of drinking water. Every oasis they spy turns out to be a mirage. It gets a bit hairy there for a while. Similarly, in The Innocents Abroad, the “modern pilgrims” travel through the desert, pushing sometimes past the brink of exhaustion to reach their destination before the heat of the day. Somehow I read these passages without much discomfort. But there is a long scene in Kidnapped when David Balfour and Alan Breck Stewart are fleeing for their lives in the Scottish highlands in the heat of the day and without drinking water, proceeding at times on their hands and knees in “blinding, choking dust as fine as smoke,” fainting with fatigue but unable to stop lest their pursuers overtake them. Even when night falls, they have to stay on the move; seeing that their pursuers have camped for the night, David “begged and besought that we might lie down and sleep.”

“There shall be no sleep the night!” said Alan. “From now on, these weary dragoons of yours will keep the crown of the muirland, and none will get out of Appin but winged fowls. We got through in the nick of time, and shall we jeopard what we’ve gained? Na, na, when the day comes, it shall find you and me in a fast place on Ben Alder.”

“Alan,” I said, “it’s not the want of will; it’s the strength that I want. If I could, I would; but as sure as I’m alive I cannot.”

“Very well, then,” said Alan. “I’ll carry ye.”

I looked to see if he were jesting; but no, the little man was in dead earnest; and the sight of so much resolution shamed me.

“Lead away!” said I. “I’ll follow.”

So they set off through the night, though occasionally “anger would come upon me in a clap that I must still drag myself in agony and eat the dust like a worm.” He adds, “By what I have read in books, I think few that have held a pen were ever really wearied, or they would write of it more strongly.” I won’t say that Stevenson had had more experience of fatigue than Twain, but he certainly knew how to write about it. The description of the agonizing trek goes on for several pages, and I have to say that, even though I had a water bottle handy beside the Kindle, I have never had such an exhausting walk on that treadmill, the sweat running down my face as I walked and walked, pressing on with my reading until I got Alan and David safely out of peril!

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