David McCullough is one of America’s most popular and prolific authors, with a string of acclaimed history books to his credit, including “The Greater Journey,” his new book about Americans in Paris from 1830 to 1900.
“People always ask me, ‘How much time do you spend researching, and how much time do you spend writing,’” McCullough told me in a recent phone interview. “That’s a good question. But what they don’t ask me is ‘How much time do you spend thinking?’”
McCullough does some of his best thinking on his early morning walks, a ritual he developed while writing a biography of President Harry Truman a few years ago. Truman was an enthusiastic walker, and McCullough thought that taking up his own walking regimen would help him better understand the nation’s 33rd president.
Several books later, the 77-year-old author has kept the walking habit, taking regular strolls around Boston, where he and his wife moved recently from Martha’s Vineyard.
McCullough’s comments reminded me of a personal connection I had made the other day between walking and thinking. I was conducting some important business by cellphone when the caller on the other end remarked that my phone signal was fading in and out. I had been pacing while I talked, inadvertently entering and then retreating from a dead spot in the signal coverage.
Before that curious mishap, I hadn’t realized how much I move my legs when I’m trying to move my mind.
The travel writer Paul Theroux makes much the same point in “The Tao of Travel,” a charming new book in which he collects some of the best wisdom he’s gleaned from other travel writers. Theroux devotes a chapter to walking, which many writers have described as a form of contemplation.
“Walking is a spiritual act; walking on one’s own induces meditation,” Theroux tells readers.
Theroux mentions Henry David Thoreau, who observed that “every walk is a form of crusade,” as well as the English poet William Wordsworth, who thought out some of his best work while on foot. Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy, recalled that Wordsworth walked for hours, even in the rain, and that “he generally composes his verses out of doors.”
Few of us will produce insights quite as grand as McCullough’s, Thoreau’s or Wordsworth’s after taking a stroll. But the larger point — that walking can be good for the mind as well as body — is something I’m trying to remember this summer, as I rise early and walk the neighborhood before the sun claims the street as its own.
Advocate editorial writer Danny Heitman contributes “At Random” to the People section each Friday. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Contact him at (225) 388-0295 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The postal address is Danny Heitman, The Advocate, P.O. Box 588, Baton Rouge, LA 70821.