Lionel Shriver on The Cult of Exercise

By Katie Cerqua

Lionel Shriver opened the first day of the Key West Literary Seminar with an analysis of western culture’s obsession and near religious devotion to exercise, creating a healthy juxtaposition to the sports-fueled topics of the day to come.

Shriver conversed on a variety of issues related to this cultural obsession, including our focus on strength at a time when we have machines to do our hard work for us, and the narcissistic motivation behind exercise to gain either status or to chase eternal life.

Her analysis of human nature and her ability to shine light on the true and often unhealthy motivations that drive these behaviors was unflinching and refreshingly straightforward. She acknowledged that she, too, is part of the problem, having had an epiphany that she is more dedicated to her exercise than her writing, even though she feels “this movement of ‘what you see, is what you get’ undersells what it means to be a person.”

Following this discussion, Shriver read an excerpt of dialogue from her book The Motion of the Body Through Space (coming out May 5th, 2020). If the themes hold true throughout the work, her novel, inspired by a New York Times article on Ultra Triathlons, is not only about the cult of exercise, but also the underling competition within a marriage. This competition, Shriver pointed out during the Q&A, can be healthy unless the competition becomes unfair, as it clearly is for the couple in her novel.

Lionel’s session gave me moments of pause as I viewed my own behaviors through this lens. Am I unwittingly a member of this cult? I did wake up early this morning to run while in Key West so I wouldn’t miss a training day for an upcoming race… What is the true motivation behind my own dedication to exercise?

Any writer who can make their reader pause to consider both their own behaviors and those of the culture at large has, in my opinion, achieved something truly great. Because of this, I look forward to delving deeper into The Motion of the Body Through Space when it releases this spring.

Katie Cerqua is the Youth and Family Services Manager at the Virginia Beach Public Library, coordinating library services for ages birth – 18. Library Journal chose Cerqua as a 2016 Mover & Shaker in the Change Agent category for her work fighting “summer slide” –the learning loss that children can experience during summer breakShe received her MLS from Clarion University of Pennsylvania.

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