February 6th, 2010 / 11:48 pm
Behind the Scenes

Exercising with Exercises in Style

One of my favorite places to read is while running on a treadmill. Seeing as reading is powerful in its ability to render time null, and exercising is a space where time seems to stretch the longest, the most against the frame (though sometimes that is part of what makes the experience nice, in a wholly other way, other times you just want to get it done), reading, then, can create an amazing mental blank over the focus of physical exertion, separating, in its best moments, the body from the mind, while putting both to maximum work in enhancement of a kind. The ecstasy of reading, I mean, can cancel out, or at least sure as hell distract you from the bitchmaster that is fleshy exercise.

Obviously not all books are condoning of this kind of method. First off, since you are constantly being jostled even in the in-place one-space forward movement that a treadmill provides, you need a book that has a nice sized font. You need big margins and a good amount of white space also, as it gives the eye a bit of breathing room to bump around in as the body slightly vibrates, going on.

As well, the book has to be relatively short (you can’t hulk Gravity’s Rainbow on this bitch (though maybe there’s a barbell corollary in here I am missing, hmm)) and it’s nice if there are lots of short chapters, or numbered sections. Most novels, therefore, don’t work. Novellas are good, as are small collections, or oddly arranged texts of some unusual nature. A lot of poetry fits this definition well, with the added bonus of when you get tired of holding the book up (I use my right arm mostly, which begins to cramp about 40 minutes in) you can kind of begin to time the section or piece breaks with where you’re aching and then let your arm rest while you move inside what you’ve last read. Getting the rhythm down might take a bit, or a few iterations, but after a while, especially before the arm hurts, you begin to forget a little where you are. The feeding of the words among the space and the movement of your mind inside your body fit together in such a way that is almost as if you are sitting still, or better, as if you do not exist, the same way it happens when reading on a sofa or in the bath (my other favorite place to read).

Some recent books I read on treadmills that I remember working well:

Holy Land by Rauan Klassnik
Pilot by Johannes Goransson
Waste by Eugene Marten
Poemland by Chelsey Minnis

Some books are short enough that you can finish them in one running session, which feels really good to have done at once, not to mention that often times you will be able to run longer, because you aren’t as aware of the passage of time, and the goal of finishing the book before quitting sets a finite goal. Dual improvements.

Some might wonder if the quality of the read itself is vastly affected by the distraction, which surely it can be, especially in a loud gym. But actually, I find myself reading maybe even more carefully, or at least with greater emphasis in pause points, due to the precariousness of running while not fully paying attention. The reading actually makes you concentrate more distinctly when you are locked in, on each sentence, as they pass, and though the gaps between the concentrations might be shakier than if at rest (you feel wobbly, sweat starts dripping, you need to slow down, etc), it seems a more intense experience in both directions. Look and see, pause and breathe. It’s nice. At least it is for me.

Tonight I went running with Raymond Queneau’s Exercises In Style, which I honest-to-god didn’t realize was potentially funny in the obvious exercise overlaps (I am dense), but also for the illustrations on the cover of naked bodies contorting into shapes to spell letters. God knows what people in the gym with me would be thinking I was reading (beyond the fact that I’m reading while running fast in the first place). Luckily, or unfortunately, no one else was working out at 9 PM on a Saturday night. Oh well.

Running with an Oulipian turned out to be the perfect partner, in many ways. Not only does EIS fit the formal criteria of many short sections with big font and lots of white space, the general conceit of the book (wherein a short scene involving a man getting on a train, seeing a small kerfuffle, getting off the train, seeing one of the arguing men again is reiterated 99 times in various stylistic permutations, showing the many many ways to say the same thing, and how they differ, what they do) made the act of reading while running even more newfangled for me. I could not stop myself from wanting to play along with the book in my own way, paying untoward attention to the way in which I was running and how it made me feel.

So, as Queneau would skip between styles including playing the scene backwards, writing excluding a certain letter, writing in the form of a eyewitness report, writing in form of a telegram, a sonnet, a play, onomatopoeiacally, using negation, using specific senses only, using bias etc., I would alter my run in various ways I could control, such as speed and incline, walking or running, how to walk or how to run (with arms or legs which way), how to hold the book (left or right hand, with thumb and forefinger, splayed open with the palm), whether to have TV on (and loud or muted), how long to keep my eyes upon the page, how many to read before I would look at the room again, etc. There were so many ways to experience the reading even in the confines of exercising, and each exerted differently upon the book.

Queneau’s book is kind of phenomenal in that it makes the banal a magic way, by showing how any detail, however gunky, can do something to the text if rendered right. Nothing that happens in the original scenario is at all exciting, but it is the way, each time, the details are confabulated into a whole that moves past its self by form and structure, attentions and definitions, careful aiming, into something at least worth studying for its affect, and, as a group together, some kind of awestriking little glyph. Not all of the exercises might be extremely powerful alone even (some of them, in form, approach a gibberish), but in their collection, and in the mind of experience, they raise the level of the hardly passable to the an object to be remarked upon (the book has been named the most outstanding translation of the last fifty years, and surely the translation of these odd languages is something to be gawked at). It’s the kind of book that has a mind about its mind, and makes even more by its variance in repetition (like miles passing) than it does any particular minute in itself, as fun or funny or beguiling or impressive on a sentence level as any of the units are.

Still, oddly, even in such formal modes, I found that time went by in long blanks as it had with other books, if more orchestrated in the pause moments. Most nights, sans book, I run 30 minutes, at a constant speed and incline. Tonight my whole first 25 had elapsed before I even looked at the clock, whereas usually I’m always checking. As well, it was very easy, even knowing I’d hit my usual time, to continue going. Without knowing I would read all 197 pages in one run, I did exactly that. I really hardly even noticed I was doing work, excerpt for my attentions to the pages as they came on and where they ended, and, in the last 3 or so pages, the consciousness of incoming completion. I ended up going 7.12 miles in a little over an hour, with speed variation all entailed, and even at the end resorted to getting on a stationary bike to vary the last few exercises therein.

Effectively, then, because the book so well fit the form, and allowed me to expand, I doubled my usual run time, burned twice as many calories, time passed without the normal feeling of wishing it were over, and I finished a book I’d been meaning to read end to end for several years now. And though I probably will remember it different ways than if I had read it laying on my back, I kind of like that fusion, and the weird throe of what stuck harder and what might have slipped past me in the sweat. Still, the very conceit I might be missing something makes it that much more timely word by word, and that much more attended thereby to it. Hell, it might have even made me in the end remember more, especially with a book so rigorous in its own way: the running might have helped me distract to formal notions and taken the book instead more as a body on its own. Whatever the case, it’s something, and an experience I would recommend, and would wonder what else could be done there with it, and what books might best lend their way.

Though this process might be harder in more public gyms where you are surrounded by odd crowds, something tells me that might be even more fun, in another way. Or you might not even notice in the least: as there really is something amazing about the collision of extremes, and how it makes a book feel like an experience you’ve exerted your flesh and blood through, as if suffered through the book’s otherwise static worlds of magic work.

Coming soon from me to a library rental near you: Abs of Ouilpo, Buns of Borges, Pecs of Perec.

And maybe when it gets warmer: Reading while Hiking, Reading while Skydiving, Reading while Investing in Good Stock.

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