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writing about reading

Somehow I wandered away from the keyboard for a week or so, which is both good and bad. It’s like riding the bike. Sometimes you need a rest, but you know you’ll suffer when it’s time to come back. You blow up over the first climb. You delete more sentences than you keep. That’s just how it is.

Reading helps refill the word bag, but there’s no substitute for sitting in front of the blank screen and trying to fill it. If I write about reading, will that make it easier? Maybe.

Graduate school put a premium on reading quickly. Each week, each seminar required at least one book and many times, more than one. Faced with a Ventoux of words, I learned to turn over the pages as quickly as possible. 

Since then, I have relearned the practice of slow reading. Some books deserve to be savored. The recently released Cycling Anthology is a book for slow reading. Pour a coffee and dip into a chapter. The volume collects a series of essays by writers who know their way around the sport. A second volume devoted to the Tour is due in May. I’m already counting the days.

Magazine and website writing is constrained by the norms of each medium. I’m not quite sure why we’ve decided that internet stories must be short, especially when if anything, a website offers us nearly infinite space to fill with words. I was thinking about that recently, when an editor sent me suggested word counts for a couple stories. Somehow, we’ve decided that our readers won’t sit still for more than a 1000 words on a website, but those same readers will read twice as many words on paper. I don’t pretend to understand it. 

I think the thing I liked best about the Cycling Anthology was the way the writers determined the form of the stories. Some are longer than others, some have bullet points, some jump snapshotlike from place to place. Yet when Samuel Abt, who has written hundreds of newspaper articles on the Tour, stays true to form, it still feels right. He is a master of telling detail and of making every word count. That’s part of the joy of this collection — skilled writers doing their writer thing. 

One of my first paid writing jobs in cycling was writing race previews. I wrote at length about places I’d never been with the help of satellite maps, mountain profiles, and tourist guides. Place matters in cycling. Where did the race go? What did the terrain look like? How big was the mountain, how steep the descent? 

The best cycling writers can swiftly conjure the geography of a race. Here is Jeremy Whittle in “Bin Bag of my Dreams” writing about the Joux-Plane: “Over the top there’s a corniche — stunning with madly spectacular views — following a steep escarpment, another false summit, then a terrifying plunge through tall trees, down to Morzine.” You can picture it now, right? The ending of the Whittle piece is pitch-perfect, by the way, in part because of this very same sense of place. 

It’s impossible to choose a favorite piece in this collection. I liked them all for different reasons. The Cycling Anthology is a book to read out of order, to pick and choose, to make last. As a word and bike-racing nerd, this book felt like the best of all possible worlds. If you read your cycling magazines cover to cover, if after each day’s Tour stage you go from website to website looking for the best account of the day’s race, you’ll like it too. 

There. I made it to the end. The first paragraph was the hardest. After that, it wasn’t so bad. Maybe I’ll even sit down and make some more words later. Like the bike, it never gets easier. 

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