By Harlan Garbell
“Until a man is dead, he is not yet done being created.”
Fula (West African) proverb
“So many books, so little time.”
As a retiree, people often ask what I do with my time. (“They mean well,” as my mother would say.) Occasionally, I fantasize about impressing my interlocutors by telling them that I’m translating the King James Bible into Mandarin, or some other ambitious project. Something that would amaze them while inflating my ego, albeit momentarily. But because I’m always paranoid about being exposed by my fibs, I wind up telling the truth, crushingly boring though it may be.
As the weather is warming up I have been walking a lot. Yep, that’s what I do. I also like to read. And within the past couple of years I finally came to the realization that listening to audiobooks, especially novels, while walking is an excellent way to accomplish two of my favorite activities at the same time. Imagine that! Now you know what I do with my time. However, it is the back story here that may be more interesting, and is the subject of this article.
I really don’t remember when I first learned about the concept of audiobooks. It must not have registered with me very much when I first heard about them. In any event, a few years ago a friend of ours told me that she listened to audiobooks at night to help her get to sleep. As I was also not a particularly good sleeper, I considered what she said for a few moments. Nevertheless, without much further thought, I decided that listening to audiobooks wasn’t for me. For want of a better word, I guess I was too much of a reading “purist.”
The reason I discounted the value of audiobooks, without even actually trying them, was that my initial reaction was that listening to books was not really “reading” at all. That somehow listening to the author’s exact words, spoken by a professional voice actor, would serve to devalue the intimate personal experience of reading, an activity that is important to me. Wouldn’t this be like cheating? Sort of like in high school when you pored over the Cliff Notes version of a Shakespeare play prior to the exam.
Interestingly, a few months ago I reconnected with an old college roommate of mine. He located me after a Google search led him to the HumanistsMN website. (And I’m glad he did.) He is a retired high school English teacher who has always been a serious reader. I have no doubt he had the chops to be a college English professor should he have taken that route.
Coincidentally, he also likes to take long walks. As we have been busy catching up with each other, I mentioned my enjoyable experiences listening to audiobooks while walking and suggested he may want to try it. He rejected this idea outright, actually sounding somewhat offended. As if I were suggesting that he take his wife out on their anniversary to White Castle. So, I let this go — for now.
Actually, my friend’s response to this suggestion was similar to my initial view of audiobooks. So, what caused me to change my mind after all these years, and at such an advanced age? After dipping my toes in and listening to a couple of books, I hesitantly decided to reexamine the entire experience, and my attitude. Indeed, I eventually surmised, listening to audiobooks is not really “reading” at all. It is a different experience altogether. However, that’s not necessarily a flaw (as the purist in me would have it) but actually an attractive feature. I reframed.
I was stuck for years on the idea that audiobooks were a substitute for reading. Perhaps it was also a misguided notion, resulting from too many years of schooling, that the written word somehow had more value than a spoken word. But, in any event, if I considered audiobooks a supplement to my reading regimen, I was much more flexible to their potential to enrich my life.
OK, you say, but aren’t novels meant to be read? Yes, that’s true. Novels indeed involve a personal connection between you and the author on the written page, without any intermediary, But that doesn’t mean you can’t voluntarily invite a third party in to enhance your emotional experience through a different medium of storytelling. And essentially that’s what audiobooks are, right? Just another medium for storytelling.
For much of our evolutionary history, before there were written novels, stories were usually (and universally) conveyed orally while others listened. Whether in the caves of Europe, the plains of North America, or the savannas of Africa, the drama of the hunt was told by hunters around a campfire. Audiobooks invoke a similar experience, but It’s not a reading experience. It’s more like what our parents and grandparents often experienced— a radio play. An experience, by the way, that has essentially disappeared.
So, when I walk around a lake under a beautiful sky, I can now listen to a novel while getting needed exercise. When I’m finished walking I can come home and still continue listening to my book. And what was once considered “wasted” time, (e.g. folding clothes, cutting vegetables, etc.) is now a new opportunity to “read.” I was supplementing my ability to enjoy a novel at times when I could not read.
Like other people, I have constructed psychological barriers about many things in daily life without a clearer examination of their usefulness. And I often stubbornly resist considering change out of fear, comfort, inertia, etc. Reframing, I found, is just a tool that could help in the process of letting go of unhelpful, or perhaps even useless, mental constructs to hopefully make one’s life a little better. You’re never too old and it’s not too late.
Harlan Garbell is president of HumanistsMN.