Feature

Alison Bechdel recommends 6 books on exercise

The cartoonist recommends works by Alexi Pappas, Bill McKibben, and more

Alison Bechdel is the author of Fun Home, the graphic memoir that was adapted into a hit Broadway musical. Her new memoir, The Secret to Superhuman Strength, is an illustrated chronicle of her lifelong fascination with fitness crazes.

Every Body Yoga by Jessamyn Stanley (2017).

Growing up African American in a white suburb, Stanley hated her body and idolized the thin white cheerleaders. This is the story of how the Instagram star made a space in the world of yoga — another bastion of thinness and whiteness — for herself and everyone else who doesn't fit that template.  Buy it here.

Long Distance by Bill McKibben (2000).

I've often fantasized about turning myself over to an athletic pursuit. McKibben actually did it. In his late 30s, the climate activist spent a year training seriously as a cross-country ski racer. This book documents his building endurance and reveling in arctic rigor, but it's also an elegy on our planet's dwindling winters.  Buy it here.

Why We Run by Bernd Heinrich (2001).

Heinrich is a wild man: a biologist, a writer, and an ultramarathoner. His curious book veers between his research into migrating birds, his life in a forest as a young World War II refugee, and his training as an early ultrarunner, experimenting to find the best fuel for a 100K run — which turns out to be cranberry juice.  Buy it here.

Bravey by Alexi Pappas (2021).

Pappas turned down a few MFA poetry programs in order to pursue her dream of becoming an Olympic runner, then became a filmmaker in her spare time. This book of essays goes deep, examining the pain behind her relentless drive and the depression that temporarily derailed her.  Buy it here.

The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd (1977).

Climbing a mountain pretty much always beats reading about climbing a mountain — except in the case of this breathtaking and strangely beautiful book. Shepherd rambles through the Scottish Cairngorms, tracing their water sources, walking into clouds, swimming in a loch so limpid she can see the bottom drop off dizzyingly below her.  Buy it here.

The Front Runner by Patricia Nell Warren (1974).

This novel is dated and kind of corny, but reading it as a teenager in the 1970s fueled my love of running. It's a (definitely pre-#MeToo) gay love story about an Olympic athlete and his coach, but it's some of the best writing about running I've ever read, sensuous and technical at once. Warren herself was one of the first women to run the Boston Marathon. Buy it here.

This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.

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