Friday, January 15, 2016

Book review: Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America's Favorite Spectator Sport by Matthew Algeo

Anyone who knows me knows I am a big walker. It's not a big deal for me to walk anywhere from 8-15 miles on a Saturday. I could walk a half marathon at any time, and I have walked a full marathon (7 hours, 23 minutes). These days that's considered a lot. I've had coworkers say to me on a Monday, "Did I see you out walking yesterday... all the way across town?" And I'll say yes, I was out that way. I listen to podcasts and audiobooks.

So last year when this book first came out, about how at one point in our history, competitive endurance walking was America's favorite spectator sport, of course I had to read it. It's got everything I love: American history, random trivia, and walking. And the best thing is that, while the author is a thorough researcher and he understands that at the time this was utterly serious, he does have a sense of humor about how it comes across now. (But if you don't like your history with a dose of funny, just skip the parentheticals and footnotes.) Back in the 1860s, you had to walk pretty much everywhere, unless you were wealthy. But regular people walked. And it wasn't at all unusual. I remember in the Little House series of books that at one point Pa walked about two states away to work on the railroad after the grasshoppers ate everything, and no one was shocked by that. And this is before there were left and right shoes!

Two men made a bet on the outcome of the presidential election. If Lincoln won, one guy would walk from Boston to the inauguration in D.C. If the other guy won, the other guy would walk to the inauguration. While the loser did not make it in time, his feat was nonetheless impressive and newspapers took note. Somehow, this spiraled into him doing walking demonstrations and he would hire a venue and spectators would pay to come in and watch him (and others) walk for hours and hours, hundreds of miles. I must say I was impressed with the distances and how easily they could just toss off a marathon or two. They often walked two, three, even five hundred miles or more on these competitions. Eventually a British guy had a prize belt made and put up some prize money, and this became a heated rivalry between America and Britain. At this time there weren't many organized sports at all, and the few there were involved a great deal of land which is always pricey, especially in a city. This was the first time, thanks to the industrial revolution, that people had spare time. And because it was the first time ever, no one had yet invented hobbies or sports or other ways to spend that excess time. Walking was cheap and easy and people could relate to it. Although yes, it's also silly, looking back.

The book is well-researched and smoothly written. It was easy to read and amusing to boot. If you find this description remotely appealing, I predict you'll thoroughly enjoy this diverting distraction about the first international spectator sport.

I checked this book out of the library.

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