8 Books that Capture a Life in Motion

Tree Abraham, author of "Cyclettes," recommends stories about the impact of the physical on the mental

Photo by sporlab on Unsplash

The world seems to be moving faster and faster, asking us to keep up and keep on with its changes. It’s dizzying. Between my general mental chatter and the noise of today, my desire for slow paths into quietude has increasingly grown. For the lucky and privileged, the pandemic served as a pause to reflect on pace. Hybrid work models offer the chance to recalibrate the flow of our days. I read and wrote excessively during the pandemic, after long daily rides around empty New York streets. Rides I suddenly needed as an escape from the confines of quarantine. Rides I now had time for in lieu of hours spent commuting. My pace—cerebrally and kinetically—has become synced with the pace of the bicycle.

I was not a sporty child (except when choosing Spice Girl allegiances). Despite trying my best at every school tryout, I never made a team. It was always the same kids making all the teams. Twelve years of straight-A report cards consistently featured the lone outlier of a passable PE mark. There was scant evidence that I would grow up to write a sporty book. And yet, my first publication is about my relationship to bicycles. Early into the book, I alert the reader that I am not a cyclist but a rider of bikes, almost as a preemptive defense against any gym teachers, jocks, or serious athletes that would inevitably find me out. It is also with this sense of alienation from those that sport that I hesitate to even describe my book as sport-adjacent, for fear of discouraging nonsporty readers. Perhaps my latent athleticism birthed this awareness of the impact of the physical on the mental, the interplay of stillness and travel, how my body sometimes needs to take over life processing when my brain is a jumble of questions.

With freedom gained through the bicycle, Cyclettes traces my thoughts and movements through diverse cultures and ideas as I contemplate how to live a meaningful life. The narrative is recursive in its themes and fluid in its spiraling from one into the next with written and visual rhythms that simulate the sensation of riding a bicycle. This is a list of some of my favorite books that keenly track on the page the experience of a mind in motion.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

Prolific Japanese writer Murakami’s memoir feels almost like dispatches from the road, a light stream of consciousness that comes while he is running in Hawaii, Japan, and New England in preparation for the New York City marathon. His history as a runner and long distance racer has spanned the length of his writing career. What Murakami talks about when he talks about running is running, but also writing, and also the distillation of self. His self is one of great solitude, whose persistent focus at a writing desk parallels his fixed gaze on a horizon during a long run. He revisits past successes and failures in both writing and racing, which are really competitions between his younger and older self, stamina sharpened by a mind that remains present one word or step at a time. Murakami calls himself a physical more than an intellectual person who needs to physically strain his muscles to near an understanding of anything. The secret to succeeding in one’s pursuits is maintaining a pace, he says. Reading the book is like slipping into Murakami’s shoes and lapping in time with him. 

Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach

Bach said the idea for the book came to him as “a visionesque spooky thing”. This sleeper hit was hard to classify when it quietly debuted in 1970. Was it a children’s book? Animal fantasy? Religious parable? Nature? Photography? Whatever it was, Jonathan Livingston Seagull went on to sell over a million copies by its second year in print. Jonathan Livingston Seagull is living a typical seagull life when the story begins. Growing bored of his monotonous days, he is expelled from his flock and begins to push the limits of flight beyond his basic needs. Jonathan encounters other outcast gulls who share their wisdoms about a higher plane of existence, experiments with speed and aerial prowess, and develops a philosophy for an impassioned life. Dispersed throughout early editions are grayscale photographs of a seagull freezeframed against a stark sky or a vast seashore. In the centerfold, there is a sequence of filmy sheets capturing a seagull at multiple stages of flight. A previously unpublished fourth part was added to the story in the 2014 edition. The book remains a divisive text with some declaring it a spiritual classic, others finding it naïve. I read it a decade ago and still think of its windy heights every time I see a seagull.

Swimming to the Top of the Tide by Patricia Hanlon

The top of the tide is an intermission between flow and ebb. Hanlon writes that it is in that moment of reaching the top of the tide on a swim that a body is encircled by horizon, held at the apex of stillness, suddenly aware of the gravitational relationships at work. That moment becomes familiar to Hanlon and her husband over the course a book that documents a year of swimming in the tidal estuary of New England’s Great Marsh. They had made a pact to swim as often as they could for as long as they could before winter shut them down. But as the sun set earlier and waters cooled, they upgraded wetsuits and became more ingenious in their techniques to stay warm. Almost daily they swam after work, discovering new swimming spots in a locality they’d called home for forty years. Many areas were unnavigable by all other modes of transportation but a body shimmying through narrow hidden waters. Part how-to guide, part nature journal, part ecological call to action, this book inspires the reader to take a closer look at the everyday cycles in their own backyards.

Flâneuse by Lauren Elkin

Coined in the 19th century, a flâneur was a person (an affluent, urban, white man) that leisurely wandered the streets in aloof observation. Historically, women were largely excluded from such free rambling because of the male gaze, issues of safety, and domestic duties. By contrast, Elkin defines a flâneuse as a person (determined, resourceful, feminine) that walks the streets with purpose, searching for a metropolis’s creative potential. Weaving her own meandering insights with tales of women throughout history, literature, and the arts who shared the same streets in New York, Tokyo, Paris, Venice, and London, Elkin considers how women have engaged in complicated ways with public spaces. Walking is like reading, like map-making, like seeing the unseen. What can only be found on foot? Take a long walk and find out.

Bright Archive by Sarah Minor

In a combination of concrete poetry, interviews, memoir, and historical research, Minor’s experimental nonfiction collection is interactive architecture with directional force. Each essay demands the reader physically change perspectives to enter figurative and literal interstices that examine how people and places are shaped by one another. When Minor returns to her family’s old Iowa home, narrative is housed at an angle in and around attic trusses and soffits, numbered paragraphs serving as signposts for the eyes to follow as if the reader is also hunched over in the dusty rafters searching for squirrels. One essay requires the reader turn the book upside-down and back around as the story shifts from scenes in underground temples of the Damanhur commune, then back up for air. An essay written sideways and split down the middle recounts Minor’s journey down the banks of the Mississippi River as she considers the chutes that carry our refuse and where waste ends up. There’s an essay with sentences that knot like drawstrings on pants being pulled off, another that takes the shape of a log cabin from above as blocks of text interlock at 90-degree angles. From enclosure and release to falling and fleeing, the layouts transform each essay’s emotional core into a correlating bodily motion. 

Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

Published a year after Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing and a week before the country entered COVID-19 quarantine, Headlee’s book is a more pragmatic dismantling of productivity. She charts the evolution of work culture—the rise of the 8-hour work day, how busyness became a virtue, careers got equated with identity, and people began working harder rather than smarter. Headlee challenges the foundation around which we assess the quality of our life, presenting research on how the brain reacts to technology, being overworked, and under socialized. She offers strategies for how to better perceive and make use of time, idle with intent, and enact daily habits to destress. The art of doing nothing is a trendy topic. This book is one accessible introduction to a greater consciousness around how and when to power down.

Arbitrary Stupid Goal by Tamara Shopsin

Illustrator and graphic designer Shopsin’s memoir about growing up in her parents’ infamous old-fashioned grocery story is told in fragmented anecdotes about the ongoings of neighbors, customers, and fringe people of Greenwich Village in the 1970s and ’80s. Her unconventional childhood is doled out in random, curious snippets of short paragraphs, drawings, and ephemera that feel like memories themselves. Told out of order, the assemblage almost presents time like a bouncy ball erratically bouncing without cumulation. At the heart of it all is her idiosyncratic father, constantly keeping busy with side musings and store upgrades. Shopsin’s father’s doctrine was that of ASGs. An Arbitrary Stupid Goal is something that “isn’t too important, makes you live in the moment, and still gives you a driving force. This driving force is a way to get around the fact that we will all die and there is no real point to life.” ASGs are like mini-preoccupations to get a person from one day to the next. This playbook for staving off tedium, depression, and existential despair is introduced and reinforced to the reader with every example of her father’s little motions.

So Many Olympic Exertions by Anelise Chen

In this work of autofiction, we meet Athena—a former swimmer seven years into her doctoral program with a yet completed dissertation on competitive sport—grieving a friend’s suicide, perseverating on what it would mean to keep going or give up. The narrative is formatted like a commonplace book of notes-to-self that meditate on progress and regress and the messaging on success defined in the world of sport. Each effort—to write a thesis, to play a sport, to live a life—acts as metaphor for the others.

The book is dripping with Athena’s languish as thoughts on desires versus goals are interspersed with descriptive clippings from sports media: interviews and footage of athletes quitting, collapsing, failing; a bruised limb; a perfect 10; commentator rhetoric on winners and losers; studies on the psychology of it all. So Many Olympic Exertions’ economical poeticism, curious collectanea, and introspective probing of modern stressors is reminiscent of Jenny Offill’s Weather about the anxiety of living in a time of climate emergency. Both ask, what now? Chen writes, “the daily resistance of living is a necessary exertion. Our musculature is designed to resist.”

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