February 1, 2010KR BlogKR

Down and Out (On Where We Look When We Read)


We were in London for four days before my partner noticed the LOOK LEFT and LOOK RIGHT markings on the road, and then only after I pointed them out. He’d nearly darted in front of another black cab (years of living in ticket-for-jaywalking-happy Seattle apparently not an effective caution) and I wondered aloud why he didn’t consult the directions scrawled on the street corners before so recklessly crossing. “Huh,” he said, “would you look at that.” I was stunned–how could he have been walking around for four days straight without noticing these giant indicators? “I never look down when I walk,” he told me. Never?

He explained that (for reasons somehow related to why he can’t read in a car) when he walks, he always tries to take in the most panoramic view possible. How grandiose! I, on the other hand, look down when I walk for all sorts of reasons: to avoid eye contact, to compensate for poorly-chosen footwear, to try and convince passersby that I’m not staring at them in that creepy, fiction-writer-imagining-their-most-mundane-sadnesses, way.


Surprised as I was to learn that he doesn’t look down when he walks, it makes sense with what I know of him as a reader: obsessed with big-sky stuff like structure and thematics, sometimes to the exclusion of all else. It resonates with what I recognize about my own readerly proclivities, too: obsessed with character, dialogue, and last lines, sometimes to the exclusion of all else. I’m not arguing that one way of reading–or walking–is preferable (why not just look both ways like we learned in grade school?) only wondering whether other readers wander through books the same way they navigate crosswalks. Is the way you walk (and notice the world around you) reflected in the way you read (and experience the world you’re imagining)? Are there others of you out there that really never look down?

What makes us dizzy (reading on a bus, thinking too long about structure) differs, and we’ll never know exactly what someone else sees when they look around the same streetcorner or read the same short story as we do, but lucky are all readers, trying as we do to walk close enough beside someone that any oncoming vehicle would surely strike us both.