I love walking. Literally the only fitness goal I have is to be able to, if I hate everything about my life badly enough, go out the door and walk until I get to another country. (To be clear, I’m European, so this isn’t actually crazy fit.) And in particular I love walking while listening to audiobooks.
In honour of the wonderful weather, I’ve come up with a list of “walking books”. For me, such books aren’t just anything with good narration; there’s three points that make a book fitting:
- It’s better if the book isn’t too complex. I prefer not to pause if I briefly get distracted deciphering the map, snapping a photo, or focusing on not tripping over tree roots. In my opinion, it’s perfectly fine to miss a few sentences here and there, as long as you can still follow the plot.
- It’s better if the book isn’t too long. When I’ve been walking for four hours, it’s nice to double that sense of accomplishment by realising I’m also a good chunk through the book. It’s less nice to see that there’s 30 hours of book left.
- It’s better if the book fits the walking environment. This is the big one. It never fails to fill me with silly joy when the book describes something — a far-off mountain, a narrow alley — and I can see it before me, literally. (Note: Which means my list is centred mostly around the Central European walking environment, my apologies!)
That’s not to say books that fail all three criteria are necessarily out. I also think non-fiction is particularly wonderful to walk to, on the basis that you can’t remember every fact in the book anyway, and walking means there’s no pressure to try. Here’s a few non-fiction audiobooks I liked: Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities by Bettany Hughes; Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India by Shashi Tharoor; You’re Never Weird on the Internet by Felicia Day; A Greedy Man in a Hungry World by Jay Rayner; So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson.
But forget learning things — on to the SFF list!
Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien. Yeah, boring take, but it’s just the perfect book for hill walking! It’s given me some great walking book moments, e.g. pretending the Alps on the horizon are the Misty Mountains or running out of water in 30+ degree heat while those assholes Merry and Pippin get to drink Ent-draught. Small warning though: everyone thinks LOTR is mostly walking. That’s not true. LOTR is mostly people sitting down to chat, eat, and sing after walking. If you’re not sitting down with them, it does start to feel like the book’s taunting you.
Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch. This urban fantasy/mystery is the exact opposite of LOTR — it’s the perfect series for wandering through a city. More specifically, it’s very intensely about London. Peter Grant, a nerdy policeman-cum-wizard-apprentice, adores his home city, and the mysteries he solves are often highly intertwined with its history. However, the overall mood fits many larger cities. Note: the fifth book is a countryside-walking book.
Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse. Maggie Hoskie hunts monsters in a post-apocalyptic America; the elevator pitch is “an indigenous Mad Max: Fury Road”. Maggie lives in a post-climate-change-ravaged world, so I hope nobody listening is walking through her environment exactly. But more generally if it’s hot outside and you have your most badass leather jacket on, this book will get your blood pumping.
Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier. [CW: rape.] A loose retelling of the Six Swans legend, set in ancient Ireland; Sorcha must sew shirts from painful nettles to save her brothers from an enchantment. In the first half especially, Sorcha spends most of her time in nature, and the fae magic of the book adds to the charm if you’re in a forest yourself.
A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan. This series is an autobiography of Lady Isabella Trent, the first female dragon naturalist. While Isabella is mostly fascinated by the wide variety of dragon species she encounters, her scientific expeditions takes her through equally fascinating landscapes: swamps, deserts, and mountains. Something for everyone, no matter where you’re walking.
The City and the City by China Mieville. Inspector Borlú must solve a murder in the topographically overlapping but otherwise distinct cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma, where noticing the other city is a punishable offence. The book kinda breaks the first rule: it throws you pretty far into the deep end, and Mieville has an… intense prose style. But it deserves its spot for how interesting it is to listen walking through your own town, noting who you’re supposed to “unsee”.
Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel. About a wandering troupe of actors and musicians, set after a plague wipes out most of Earth. Like LOTR, it doesn’t spend as much time on the actual wandering as you might imagine. But it’s a great book to walk to while imagining how your surroundings would change if almost everyone around you was suddenly gone. Quiet, hopeful, and poignant.
Uprooted by Naomi Novik. Agnieszka, a young village woman, is taken to serve as the local wizard’s servant-cum-apprentice. Agnieszka’s village is right on the edge of the Wood: a malevolent forest that’s exceedingly unhappy about anyone cutting down its trees. That and the Slavic fairytale vibe of the magic make it a wonderful listen if you’re walking through the woods — the gloomier the better.
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss. With the help of some other extraordinary women, Mary Jekyll tries to solve the murder committed by her father’s old lab assistant Mr Hyde. London and light-hearted murder mysteries just go well together! As the book is a pastiche of 19th century sci-fi/mystery fiction, it feels less tied to place than Rivers of London. Basically if you have old-timey docks, old-timey street cars, or an old-timey asylum around, you’re set.
The Elephant Vanishes and Other Short Stories by Haruki Murakami/ Silver Birch, Blood Moon edited by Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow. Two collections of short stories: the former primarily magic realism, the latter fairytale retellings. I’m grouping these together because both can get a little repetitive thematically on longer walks, but are perfect for shorter ones.
Minimum Wage Magic by Rachel Aaron. A few decades after magic comes rushing back to Earth, Opal Yong-ae’s job is to clean up people’s magical junk. This is a standalone sequel series to the excellent Heartstrikers books. But while those crept towards epic conflicts, Minimum Wage Magic is just about Opal surviving in a real city of adventure, the Detroit Free Zone. Maybe it’s better to listen to this one in the countryside: otherwise you’re just constantly reminding yourself how much cooler the DFZ is than whatever city you’re in.
The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin. [CW: rape.] Set in a world rocked by earth-shattering (literally) apocalypses; after Essun’s husband kills their son for having magic, Essun is determined to track him down. Because much of the book is written in the second person, walking along with Essun can make the experience even more immersive. Still, here too, I hope no one’s environment actually matches the book’s!
The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker. A slice-of-life book about the djinni Ahmad and the golem Chava, set in early 20th century New York. Some of the best parts of the book are Ahmad and Chava wandering the streets at night and sharing their thoughts and feelings. Which of course makes it perfect if you’re looking for a quieter book to walk to.
The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee. Monty’s Grand Tour through Europe is one last chance for fun with his best friend/crush Percy until he has to settle down to be the perfect heir. Obviously things go wrong. The book takes you from 18th century Britain to France, Italy, and beyond. It’s perfect either for walking in the most historic, fancy part of town, or somewhere with no one around to hear you giggle.
Lancelot by Giles Kristian. A retelling of the King Arthur legend, from the point of view of Lancelot. Alright, so I’m in the middle of Lancelot right now, so I can’t swear by it yet. But listening to a legend of 5th century Britain is just meant for a long walk in the wilderness, no?
And I’ll leave off here for now, with a sweet 16. Hopefully something on this list made you wanna put on your sneakers and go for a stroll! Still, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. (Both in terms of books and in terms of environments.) So what about you, what’s your favourite walking book?