Our Reading Lives

On Reading, Walking, and Seasonal Depression

Leah Rachel von Essen

Senior Contributor

By day, Leah Rachel von Essen is the editor-in-chief of Chicago Booth Magazine at the University of Chicago. By night, she reviews genre-bending fiction for Booklist, and writes regularly as a senior contributor at Book Riot. Her blog While Reading and Walking has over 10,000 dedicated followers over several social media outlets, including Instagram. She writes passionately about books in translation, chronic illness and bias in healthcare, queer books, twisty SFF, and magical realism and folklore. She was one of a select few bookstagrammers named to NewCity’s Chicago Lit50 in 2022. She is an avid traveler, a passionate fan of women’s basketball and soccer, and a lifelong learner. Twitter: @reading_while

The fact that I read and walk is well known. It’s my hallmark. It’s fun, and people tease me about whether it’s safe and whether I run into things (to cover that quickly: I don’t read while I cross the street, I don’t run into trees or poles; I only read-and-walk on set routes, such as in parks, or on routes that I know instinctively and well, such as my way to and from work; my only true enemy is uneven sidewalks).

What’s less known is why I do it. It’s not just to get in more reading time, although goodness knows it helps to get 50 minutes of round-trip reading in on the way to and from work, and it’s great to combine low-pressure exercise with reading. But I’m also an anxious person. Thoughts swirl. At my best, I’ve written poetry and solved intricate problems in my novels while I walk. But at my worst, leaving me alone with my thoughts is a recipe for trouble: I fidget, I bite my nails, and my thoughts are free to attach on things and intrusive thoughts, to begin racing, even as I enjoy my surroundings, try to employ mindfulness, try to take deep breaths.

A woman reading, facing away, in front of a waterfront sunset

Reading while walking takes all of that away. Reading while in lines, on the bus, or during commercials does the same thing: it banishes the possibility of my mind getting away from me. On my mental health quest, it’s crucial and helpful.

And so seasonal depression hits hard.

I already am prone to depression; I have anxiety; I am rejuvenated by sun and thunderstorms and feel low when I can’t go outdoors. Many of us feel lower in energy and in joy when the sun begins to set before we even leave work in the winter.

Add onto that the parts of winter that come after my reading time. It’s too cold to have my hands out to turn pages; it’s too hard to turn them in gloves, and anyway, in Chicago, even gloves aren’t enough; and then the wind and damp are bad for the books. And before the cold even hits that hard, add the progression of short days, and now it’s also too dark to read on the way home, leaving me to bundle in and walk home alone with my thoughts.

I’m trying to get back into podcasts, to see if it will keep my mind from racing away as it so often does. And perhaps it won’t be as bad this year: I’ve made a lot of progress against my anxiety and insomnia over the course of 2019. But still, I’m dreading the dark evenings that come with late fall, that come to take my reading and walking away, leaving me with less reading time overall as well as more time to walk in the cold with my anxiety.

I don’t mean this piece to just be defeatist. Here’s hoping that this year, I can refocus: that the long walks home will become once again wellsprings of creativity instead of haunted by my worries. But even if I can’t, I’m calling on all of us to start now: let’s prepare, let’s get our mugs of tea and warm baths ready, let’s start carving out more reading time to balance any that’s lost to the cold days, let’s invest in warm light lamps and Vitamin D supplements and talk options and strategies with our therapists. Let’s dive into not letting dark nights defeat us.