In this thread from Saturday, quite a few people rhapsodized on how much they like audio books, and they recommended them to me. I’ve written before about my problems with auditory learning (see this and this), but now I’d like to talk (correction: write) about my problems with recorded books.
Years ago when my arm injuries were at their peak, I couldn’t even hold a book or turn the pages for very long. That was before the days of Kindle, and I experimented with every book-holding gadget that was made at the time. None of them worked for me, because they all involved too much arm labor. At the time, even a few minutes was too much.
But I missed my books terribly. After all, when your activities are as markedly limited as mine were then, books can become more important than ever for the already-bookish. So I went to what you’d think would be the natural alternative, Books on Tape (as it was quaintly called at the time).
It was a total bust for me. Within minutes of beginning to listen, my mind would go on walkabout. Daydreaming, wandering, cogitating, woolgathering—the drift would inevitably happen. Later, I’d find myself coming to without a clue as to where I’d left off.
When you stop reading a book you know you’re doing it, and you can place a bookmark there to note the exact spot to come back to when you resume reading. No such luck in finding where you’re stopped listening to an audio book. I had no idea where I’d stopped concentrating; no idea where I’d begun to drift, and anyway it wouldn’t really help to find the spot because I’ve just do it again in fairly short order, even though I’d resolve not to.
It didn’t seem to matter what the subject was. Fiction or non, biography or novel, all were merely a jumping-off point for me when I listened to them. When I read a book I usually am sharp and focused, as well as quick. But listening seemed to bring out some stubborn resistant part of me, or perhaps it was a real inability to process information that way or at least to attend to it.
That had been a big problem for me in my school days—not a learning problem, because I was an excellent student, and almost all the information could also be accessed in books—but an attention problem. I would sit at my desk, uncomfortable and bored, eyes and mind glazing over at the drone drone drone of most of my teachers. It was particularly acute during reading time, when the teacher would often call on the slowest of readers to read aloud.
I was embarrassed for them as they slowly and stumblingly read the passage in our little readers (in which the stories were already stupifyingly dull). I had sympathy for the slow readers, at least in the abstract. But it set my teeth on edge to have to listen as their humiliation and suffering went on and on and on. Later, in college, I was puzzled by lecture halls. Why should I have to sit there for an hour listening to a lecture when I could have read it in a few minutes if the text had been given me?
There’s a clue there to some of the problem: reading a text aloud takes longer than just reading it to oneself, and I apparently wasn’t very patient with that process. I don’t think that’s the whole explanation (which remains a mystery), but it may be part of it.
I was one of those people who sat at the very back of the room during lectures, swinging my leg restlessly, doodling and smoking.
There were only a few classes in college that I liked. They were almost always small, and involved discussions rather than lectures—such as the one on poetry, where the professor and I would schmooze about Robert Frost while the rest of the class yawned.
So audio books are not a good match for me. The only one I’ve ever listened to successfully was someone who read James Herriot’s short stories with zest, verve, and appropriate accents. Those tales are already remarkably entertaining, though, and they’re not long. The person reading them on that particular recording was able to turn them into amusing little radio plays, and my attention never wavered. But that was a rare phenomenon for me in the world of book listening.
So although I see the point of audio books in terms of practicality and ease, for me it just doesn’t seem to work. It’s an odd quirk of mine, since I have no problem listening to normal speech in the real world. If you talk to me, I’ll listen intently. I might even remember what you said longer than another listener might remember it. I’ll pick up on nuances of expression. I usually can tell a lot about people from their speech and tone, even the way they answer the phone—sad, tired, half-asleep, lying, telling the truth. But lectures and books seem to erect a wall between me and the speaker, the talk turns into a drone, and before I know it my mind is elsewhere.
And then there’s my problem with cartoons…