What makes good bedside reading? I’m talking about that particular kind of reading that consists of paying close attention for about ten minutes, dozing for ten more, then waking with a jerk as the book crashes to the floor. This is not the place for “War and Peace.”
I’ve found that two kinds of books lend themselves to the bedside. The first are the tried and true books that I can happily read over and over, even re-reading chapters or skipping them by mistake with no loss to the reading experience. Thank you, Angela Thirkell, Margery Allingham, and Betty MacDonald.
The second kind of bedside reading consists of short pieces, such as stories or essays. They can’t be too demanding, of course – no Montaigne, no Faulkner. For this kind of reading, I thank authors like L. Rust Hills (“How to Do Things Right, or the Confessions of a Fussy Man”), Eleanor Perenyi (“Green Thoughts, A Writer in the Garden”), and James Thurber (just about anything). Each is entertaining, and each is forgiving – because of length or lightness of touch – of a short attention span.
My newest addition to the bedside table is of the second sort. Geoff Nicholson’s “The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science, Philosophy, and Literature of Pedestrianism,” despite its daunting title, is really a series of personal essays on walking.
Nicholson, a transplanted Englishman, begins by telling the story of how – unexpectedly, for no apparent reason – he fell while walking in the Hollywood Hills near his home in Los Angeles. He broke his arm in three places, which was bad enough, but he found that the cast threw off his balance, making it uncomfortable to walk. Even after it came off, “I was left nursing this tender, half-formed thing, something soft and without muscle: it was like having a week-old puppy dangling at the end of my arm, although in this case the puppy actually was the arm.”
But not walking made him depressed, so he returned to being that somewhat endangered species, an L.A. walker. In the pieces that follow, he weaves in his own story, including how he climbed the hill that killed his mother, but he also recounts stories of walkers both famous and infamous. Some walked and lied about it (Fyona Campbell, who claimed to have walked 20,000 miles around the world), some didn’t walk and resented it forever after (Buzz Aldrin), and some walked naked (an Englishman who twice walked from Land’s End to John o’Groats, the second time with his naked girlfriend).
In short, this is the perfect bedside companion – witty, a bit sardonic, entertaining, and with short chapters that accommodate a dozy reader. Best of all, if the book crashes to the floor, you can pick up anywhere and just keep walking – I mean, reading.