Dan Rubinstein's Born to Walk is a perfect springtime read, an absorbing book that will awaken your senses to nature and your nature. Rubinstein takes a fascinating look at how the simple act of walking has the power to transform our lives and the world around us.
He talks to us here about great non-fiction, pedestrian surprises, and the perils of reading while walking.
49th Shelf: In Born to Walk, your project is huge—a mix of science, sociology, and memoir, crisscrossing continents, and approaches. What other non-fiction books did you have in mind as a template for organizing and synthesizing such a vast amount of information?
Dan Rubinstein: I live and breathe non-fiction, both books and long-form magazine features, but one of the challenges I had when looking for works to emulate is that most narrative non-fiction books, such as Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, involve a single main character on one main journey. Into the Wild, The Golden Spruce, and Ballad of the Whiskey Robber by Julian Rubinstein (no relation)—books that I consider to be among the finest of this genre—were not great templates for me. They feature the mix of reportage, personal storytelling, and travelogue that I love. But I wanted to write about a string of characters on a range of different types of journeys, some of which were rather commonplace, but an essential part of our daily lives, not an extreme adventure in a far-off land.
Which is how I view walking overall: something that needs to be part of our daily rhythms, not something that we go out our way to do. So instead of drawing structural inspiration from other non-fiction books, I approached Born to Walk as a series of interrelated magazine features, a form I am quite familiar with. Each chapter kind of reads like a magazine story with its own narrative arc and a blend of my personal experiences, third-person reporting, and a deep dive into the scientific literature around the theme at the core of that chapter. I also wanted to ensure that while there is consistency across the chapters with me serving as a through line and a bridge from one to the next, there is also variety to keep readers engaged. That’s why some chapters start with me while some start with other people, and why each chapter is rooted in a different physical location, making the settings and cultural differences between places stand out.
49th Shelf: What unexpected conclusions did you come to at the end of your research? In what ways did writing Born to Walk change your mind about walking?
Dan Rubinstein: It wasn’t intentional, but several of the places I went to walk—North Philadelphia, Glasgow, various reserves in Quebec—are communities that are facing some pretty significant socio-economic and/or health challenges. And yet, despite these challenges, walking is seen as a way to help heal the community and to work towards some type of positive change. This approach appears to be working. I knew that walking had these qualities, but I didn’t expect my beliefs and the scientific literature to be validated in such a visceral way. I mean, one of the first people I started talking to during the health walk I went on in Glasgow was a man with schizophrenia who said that walking with the group gave him a tremendous confidence boost. And that was just one of dozens of similar experiences.
Whenever I doubted my central argument or felt that I was overstating the benefits of walking, somebody—a doctor, a scientist, an economist, and so forth—would basically say, "No, walking can do all of these things." I don't know if writing the book changed my mind about walking in any way other than reaffirming that it’s something we need to do more of to claw back some of the things we’ve lost in Canada, the U.S., and the U.K., where physical and mental health problems, social alienation, greed, subservience to technology, and a general lack of fulfillment are hampering our ability to see a new path for our species on this planet.
49th Shelf: Throughout your book, you reference Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust—a book I love. You also note Trevor Herriot’s The Road is How. Can you recommend a few more Canadian-authored titles as companions to Born to Walk?
Dan Rubinstein: Charles Montgomery’s Happy City informed my views on how cities should work for their residents, and is a great read. The End of Absence, by Michael Harris, dovetails with my views on technology overload. Chris Turner’s books on sustainability, The Geography of Hope and The Leap, present a viewpoint that I wholeheartedly subscribe to: that we can change ourselves and our societies in order to stave off environmental doom. And though they’re not Canadian, Rory Stewart’s The Places in Between and urban planner Jeff Speck’s Walkable City are indispensable resources and must-reads, I would say, for people interested in the power of walking in both North American cities and distant lands.
49th Shelf: What are you thoughts on walking while reading? Reckless? Efficient? Idiotic?
Dan Rubinstein: I admit that I do listen to music and podcasts while running, and sometimes do listen to music while walking, but I’ve never actually read while walking—it’d be hard to turn pages, no?—and I don’t own an e-reader. A few years ago, I wrote a magazine feature about an American acoustic ecologist named Gordon Hempton (a.k.a. The Soundtracker), who advocates for the preservation of natural quiet and believes in the value of listening to the world around us. Since then, whether I’m in the wilderness or a city, I’ve been conscious of what one gains by paying attention the sounds of a particular place. In other words, being present where you are. So, it may not be idiotic to read while walking, but it can certainly be limiting and distracting. I wanted to include Gordon Hempton in Born to Walk (his middle name is Walker), but didn't have a chance to go on a sound walk with him. Maybe in the sequel.
Dan Rubinstein is a National Magazine Award–winning writer and editor. He contributes to publications such as The Walrus, the Globe and Mail, The Economist and enRoute, and has edited magazines in Ontario and Alberta. These days, he does most of his walking in Ottawa.
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