It is a cliché among the thoughtful class — the English majors, the publishing house interns, the baristas who write nonfiction essays with law school applications in their desk drawers like a depressing emergency eject button — to say that we found our True Home in a bookstore. It was there, we say, where we understood the world was immensely vaster than the confines of our childhood homes, by which we usually mean the discovery of other kinds of lives, far more interesting than our own; and also sex. But today, I rise in opposition: Get out of the bookstore. Go outside. Go for a run.
When I was a young man, bookstores were more important to me than toy stores, even more than libraries, because anything I saw in a bookstore could be mine
, forever. My own private library was my refuge and my comfort, compared to the incomprehensible world outside my room, and the more books I added to it the more comfortable it became. For most of my adolescence, I used my body — everything below the neck — merely to transfer my eyes from book to TV screen to book. In those books, there were often big strapping athletic types, but they were outsmarted by the bookish figure, like me. I remember, for example, Alfred Hitchcock’s Three Investigators series, in which a trio of boys (of course boys, this was the ’70s) solved mysteries at the behest of the great movie director. There was a strong kid, and a funny/lazy kid, but the leader of the group was the smart kid, the reader, the one who knew things
, because knowledge is power. But perhaps the ultimate metaphor for my understanding, back then, of the superiority of brains over brawn is the Master Blaster character from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome
, a Machiavellian dwarf literally carried around by a mute muscular hulk under his command, as if to say, “I don’t need a body… I’ll just use my intellect to command the use of somebody else’s, when needed.”
Then, when I was 15, I had enough of living solely in the mind. I was an adolescent, a time when the body lets the brain know who’s actually
in charge. “I will not be ignored!” shouted my physical self, and looking at it in the mirror I realized my neglect of it to that point had taken its toll. I was pasty, pimpled, and overweight. I decided to go for a run.
It is an unlocked door and you can step through it anytime you like.
That decision changed my life, although not right away, and not in every way, but enough. Without running, an athletic pursuit that requires neither lessons, specialized equipment, nor skill, it’s likely I never would have spent any time in my life outside of the prison I had made of my own skull, an overstuffed room filled with adventures and knowledge, but also anxieties and fears and terrors large and small. Simply by removing my nose from a book and pointing it towards the horizon, and attempting to get there at a moderately quick pace, I became something that was less one-dimensional, less theoretical, and more human.
For all the glories within, for all the magic they possess, every book is a mediated experience. You see the world through the author’s eyes, or the protagonist’s; in nonfiction you absorb the wisdom accumulated through another’s labors. Perhaps if you are lucky and dedicated and arrogant enough to believe you have something to say, you may write a book — as I have now done twice, to my amazement — but even then you’re dependent on another mind for fulfillment, as a book unread is a but a doorstop.
Running, though, is something that you can only do for yourself, by yourself, with your own legs, lungs, and heart. And by doing so, you enter the world, the real world, the one that exists not under a lamp but a sky. (I am philosophically opposed to treadmills, which were invented as a form of punishment in Victorian jails and should have remained so.) The great thing about running is that there is no threshold for entry. There is no skill to learn; you were born with the only one needed. It is an unlocked door and you can step through it anytime you like.
“I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space,” said Hamlet
, meaning that he could wander at will through the fields of his own mind. But a nutshell is a pretty cramped place to spend one's entire life, and so is a bookstore, even a great one like Powell’s, where you can furnish that nutshell to make it varied and beautiful and, in fact, infinite. But you can also escape. Do it. Leave the bookstore, just for a while, and run.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the host of the Peabody Award-winning NPR news quiz Wait Wait...Don’t Tell Me!
, the most popular show on public radio, heard by five million listeners each week. He is also a playwright, a screenwriter, the host of Constitution USA With Peter Sagal
on PBS, a one-time extra in a Michael Jackson music video, a contributor to publications from Opera News
to The Magazine of the AARP
and a featured columnist in Runner’s World
. He’s run 14 marathons across the United States. Sagal lives near Chicago with his wife Mara. The Incomplete Book of Running
is his most recent book.