Back at the beginning of 2002, I joined Audible.com, signing up for their two books a month plan and getting a free Otis digital audio player. Audible.com sells audio books online and designed a system so their digital audio books worked with the emerging technology of digital audio players. This coincided with the rise of the iPod and made Audible.com revolutionary in that it made audio books, after the learning curve of setting up the equipment, easier to use than paper books. I now carry my iPod Nano with me at all times, and listening to a book is just a matter of plugging in an ear-bud and pressing play. I never carried a book around like that. I keep a log of books I read and before Audible I was reading on average 1-2 books a month, and after Audible I was average a book a week. Not only that, but I was “reading” from a much wider selection of subjects and genres. So I was improving on quantity and quality.
I’ve often heard people gush about books that changed their life. I always found that hard to believe, but I actually believe my life would be different if I hadn’t joined Audible. Oh, I’d be working at the same job and married to the same woman, but for the last six years I have been more excited about reading than any time in my life. Being a lifelong bookworm, that’s a pretty big statement. Joining Audible.com caused four paradigm shifts in habits.
Learning How to Read All Over Again
Switching from eyeballs to ears as my primary conduit for sending words into my brain taught me I have always been a very bad reader. This was a bit of a shock because I had always prided myself on being a good reader. I believed that because I loved to read, read lots of books and read them fast, it made me a great reader. Boy was I wrong. Switching to audio books showed me I was skimming rather than reading. The dying urge to know what was going to happen forced me to focus on dialog and plot at the expense of narrative details and voice.
Listening to a good book read by a great narrator showed me how much drama and characterization I had been missing. Listening at a reading pace taught me to take in the whole book and I began to value the narrative parts, seeing more details, making the settings vivid and allowing me to imagine what the characters looked like and acted. For some reason hearing words, like the names of colors or the names of objects, made me visualize what those words were pointing to in the real world. The shift was dramatic, as dramatic as being stoned and listening to music for the first time.
It really is a matter of concentration. Listening gave me the time to concentrate on what the author was intending. Since I’ve learned this trick I’ve been able to go back to reading with my eyes and read slower. What I’ve learned is eye reading and ear reading emphasize different ways to learn and experience books. If I want to study a book I have to read with my eyes, if I want to experience a book I listen. For pure reading enjoyment listening is the way to go but if I find a book I want embrace fully, I also have to read it.
Over the years I have also learned that I have been training my ears and mind to audio and I now hear a book way better than I did six years ago when I switched from reading to listening. I’m also improving my reading ability. I didn’t expect that as a person in my fifties.
I would say my old way of reading a novel I took in maybe 10% of what the author intended. Listening bumps that up to 25%. Reading and listening takes things to 35%. Multiple readings, with both eyes and ears, improve on those figures, but I imagine it takes a lifetime of study to really go beyond mining 50% of the gold in a great novel. My guess is there are highly educated readers with refined minds and powerful abilities to concentrate that can do what I do in one reading, but my experiences of the last six years has also taught me my limitations. I am a humbler bookworm.
Learning How to Widen My Reading Tastes
In 2002 when I switched to audio books, the audio book industry was far smaller than it is now. Thus Audible.com had a much smaller selection of books. Best sellers and classics were the top choices for publishers when deciding which books to give the audio book production treatment. When I joined Audible I expected to get the same kind of books I was reading: science fiction.
My first two selections were The Menace from Earth by Robert A. Heinlein and Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson, two books I had already read and loved. To say that I was blown away by listening to them would be an understatement. I hate to use curse words in my public writing, but the only way to convey this is to say I passionately thought to myself, “What the fuck!! How the hell did I miss so much? These are fantastic books!!!”
My immediate desire was to buy all my favorite books in unabridged audio and listen to them. The trouble was Audible didn’t offer them. I got Starship Troopers, another Heinlein novel, and Seeing in the Dark by Timothy Ferris, a nonfiction book about amateur astronomers. I discovered the magic worked just as well with nonfiction.
Okay, with my next two monthly credits I decided to be brave and just try something other than science fiction. What the heck, two books were only $16 at the time. I selected Great Expectations by Charles Dickens and Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier. I had been forced to read the Dickens book in high school and it was my model when I thought of classics. I had no idea who Tracy Chevalier was or what her book was like, but it came highly recommended. Well Mikey liked it! Turns out, Great Expectations is one of my all-time favorite books – what a discovery.
Then I tried White Noise by Don DeLillo and The Western Canon by Harold Bloom and I began to get the big picture of what I’d had been missing all my life by living in the ghetto of science fiction. Being a hard-core science fiction fan had always prejudiced me against fantasy. I got His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman on Audible and paid a rather large sum for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets on CDs from Amazon.com. I was happily eating crow.
I then tried books I would never have thought to read, like Moby Dick, Sister Carrie and Pride and Prejudice. I’ve always hated long books, but I discovered I could handle long stories if I listened to them, like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. These really are books I would never read in book form. I never had the patience for classics or long books. Audio changed that.
Finding New Times to Read
Then I discovered The Life of Pi by Yann Martel. I had bought the hard cover edition when it came out because it got such fantastic reviews but I never found time to read it. It was about then I discovered listening allowed me to “read” far more books than I could read with my eyes. Finally I had time to read best-sellers and all those books on the front tables in my favorite bookstores. I had always assumed best-sellers were the fast food of the literary world, but again I learned I was wrong, at least some of the time.
Those by-the-door display tables held the books people were talking about at work. The ones that got reviewed and their authors got to appear on TV. I finally tuned in and found what I was missing. I got to do this because I was now reading a book a week by multitasking with listening.
I cut off one earpiece to my stereo headphones, so the Y-shaped wire was now one straight wire. I kept my player in my shirt pocket from the time I dressed until I got undressed to go to bed at night. I wrapped the wire around my neck and dropped the ear bud end back in the same shirt pocket. It was my new geek tie. My wife thinks I’m dorky-looking and gets embarrassed seeing me in public, but the people at work didn’t complain. I’m a computer guy, so they don’t expect much from our attire.
From then on I learned how to read on the run – to multitask. I listen to books whenever I’m doing something that doesn’t require my full mental attention. I listen when I walk and exercise. I listen when I eat alone or wait in line. I listen when I do the dishes or pick up around the house. I listen when I drive. Using only one ear piece makes this much safer. I listen at work and while doing boring tasks like reformatting a hard drive and reinstalling software, or setting up a new server, or running around putting patches on fifty machines.
I got so good at multitasking reading I was even interviewed for the New York Times and got a tiny mention in the paper where they noted the number and variety of books I was reading because of Audible.com.
Connecting with Other Readers
Finally, Audible.com has brought me together with a lot of other readers, both online and at work. Because I wore my dorky wire tie, people would ask me about it. When I explained they were amazed and many of them joined Audible. They became pod people too and we ended up reading the same books. Audio books became the focus for a lot of new friendships. I also joined a Yahoogroup for Audible fans and met other audio book fans and even some of the people who publish and narrate audio books. We even got up a book club at work. Now when I go to parties I have a lot more books I can talk about. When I meet new people I’m willing to buy and listen to books they suggest and this opens up new lines of communications.
I used to be mostly a solitary bookworm, but now I’m a social bookworm. That’s a big difference. If I had stuck to science fiction as my main reading all of this wouldn’t have happened. I had science fiction reading friends, but they were few and far between. Actually, this shift in taste has moved me away from my science fiction world. I’ve encouraged some of my old SF buddies to try other books but they haven’t. You’d think reading with an iPod would be science fictional but that geeky quality doesn’t appeal.
Most people don’t want to change. I have found changing can be exciting.
I would say the majority of readers I know stick to paper books as their main source of reading. Some have added audio books as supplemental reading and some are half and half readers and listeners, usually reading at home and listening in the car. I’ve yet to meet anyone who carries their iPod with them everywhere.
I’ve also tried to get some of my hardcore bookworm friends to multitask so they could consume even more books, but audio book magic doesn’t work with everyone. A few are learning to multitask read. It’s the books and stories that are making me more friends. So I have to give Audible.com credit for helping me try a great selection of books that helped me connect with other people, and not being a cyborg bookworm.
Adapting to the Future
I’d like to think I could learn from this unexpected discovery and apply it to new experiences. Blogging is helping me learn to write and think, but I don’t know if it will have the transformative changing power that shifting to audio books have had. Strangely enough, writing is an anti-social activity, even though it’s all about communication. A blog is like a public diary, but few people read mine, and it generates little social communication. I value blog writing as a way to practice concentration and help fight off Alzheimer’s.
Computers and the Internet have made a major change in my life but it’s more about how I process information. I don’t think computers have made me see cognitively different like switching to listening to books. I’ve been reading with an eBook for years, and I now have a Kindle but I don’t think that will be revolutionary either. The Kindle is like a magnifying glass that lets me read easier, but I don’t read more. I am experimenting with putting Audible.com books on my Kindle and reading and listening at the same time to see if it causes better memorization.
Becoming a bookworm when I was a child was the major transformative experience of my life, but I’d have to credit Audible.com as a powerful second stage booster that has launched me into orbit. It’s hard to imagine another new technology coming along like it, but imagine what it would be like if my reading was moved from orbiting Earth to trajectory to Mars.
And I can see that it might not involve technology too. I’ve often thought if I could train myself to write a good novel or short story it might teach me a lot more about reading. That would take a lot of discipline I don’t have. I try from time to time, but can never achieve escape velocity.
As a new humble bookworm I know I might not ever get any better at reading and comprehension, but then I never expected digital audio players and audio books to come along and change things. Who knows what the future might bring.