Reading or Listening?

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Photo by Photorama -CC0 via Pixabay

A while back, when I asked some friends on Facebook about why men read less, on average, than women, one responded, “I just enjoy listening to books more than reading them these days.” I started to explore and found that this is true for many people. I had been living in a kind of bubble, thinking books were things that you read.

Audiobooks have been around for a long time. At one times, they were on cassette tapes. Later they were burned onto CDs. My first exposure to audiobooks was on a trip between Madison, Wisconsin and Columbus, Ohio listening with my driving friend to a James Patterson thriller, feeding another CD into the player every hour or so. Only problem was that we got home before we got to the end of the book.

This trend has accelerated in the era of podcasts and digital downloads. Sales revenues of audiobooks have doubled between 2009 and 2015, and the number of titles published increased from 4,600 to 35,500 during the same period (Source: Statista). By 2017 the latter total reached 79,000 titles (Source: Good E-Reader). Library Journal reports that 86 percent of libraries reported increases in audiobook circulation in 2016. Audible (Amazon’s audiobook company) has reported membership growth of 40% a year for its $14.95 per month subscription service.

What’s behind all this growth? A Quartz article proposes that it is a relentless drive to greater productivity. Audiobooks and podcasts allow us to fill the downtime, or even the time spent doing something else that doesn’t demand all of our attention–driving, exercising, or commuting on public transportation. While sometimes we may just listen to a book, in most cases we are listening while we are doing something else–multitasking. Some tasks, like riding public transportation don’t take a great deal of attention as long as we notice when its time to disembark and this might be one of the best ways to use the time, particularly if all of the other riders are in their own media bubbles.

The question could be asked of the impact on our lives of this relentless drive to be doing something “productive” and the effects of multitasking, which research has shown makes us less effective in whatever tasks we are engaging. I know that I cannot listen to much more than the news while driving, and if I try to listen to an interview or lecture while engaged in a task like writing, I can remember almost nothing of what I was listening to. Research suggests it isn’t just me, but if you think you can pull this off, I won’t argue.

I’m also intrigued by the kinds of books that are most popular in terms of audiobook sales. As you might expect, fiction and literature, followed by mystery, thriller and suspense, science fiction and fantasy, and romance top the list of sales. Business books, children’s books, and biography and memoir are much further down. I can particularly understand why children’s books aren’t as popular in this format. The artwork is as important as the words, something that cannot be reproduced in audio format. Serious forms of non-fiction (a good part of my reading) don’t make the list, and from what I’ve observed, few of these titles are even published in audiobook format. That makes total sense to me, because close reading, reviewing arguments, and footnotes are a part of such texts. (Source: Statista).

It is probably not fair for me to make comments about using audiobooks to read. I don’t do it, but I can see for the genres that are most popular, listening can make as much sense as reading. I did enjoy listening to a James Patterson audiobook with others in the car over 500 miles of basically the same scenery.

I do wonder about the feeling that we have to fill every second with some form of input. Are we so afraid to be left alone with our own thoughts? I wonder if we go through life thinking that many of the things we do aren’t worth our full attention, including our books. We think they are insufficiently productive unless accompanied by some other activity (which we also are judging insufficiently productive in and of itself).

The ubiquity of our digital devices tempts us to this. I couldn’t even sit through the intermission of Phantom when it was in town without pulling out my phone, answering a few emails, approving an expense report, and checking Twitter. And here I was sitting in this gorgeous old theater having just enjoyed some glorious music performed magnificently. I wonder if I were to get into audiobooks whether this will tempt me even further to surrender life in the real world to a digital one.

Mostly, I find myself wondering about this phenomenon and whether this represents a temporary fad (e-books spiked and then faded) or whether this is something different. I suspect like many things, it is double-edged, with upsides and downsides. As you can tell, I really have little experience with this stuff. I’d love to know what others think who listen to their books.

Walking While Reading

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Reading While Walking”  by Vonderauvisuals, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There is an older gentleman in my neighborhood, not unlike me in appearance, who likes to read while walking. I find myself chuckling to myself that here is someone even more fanatical about reading than I am! The only place I have ever read while walking is on my treadmill at home, to while away the monotony of wracking up those steps. Actually, even there, I often prefer to pray or meditate on my day. I’ve never gotten “read-walking.” (I will admit that sometimes, when I’ve had to read something and I’m sleepy, I may pace back and forth and read.)

Partly, it is the fact that when I am walking, I like to really give myself to the physical world around me, to savor and enjoy the smell of the air, the rustle of the leaves, the blueness of the sky, the bubbling of the nearby creek, or the variety of people in more crowded areas. All the delights in the world are not to be found between the pages of a book. Wherever they are, in a book, or in my surroundings, I want to savor them as fully as possible. At least for me, a multi-tasking approach of read-walking diminishes both.

I’ll also confess to a bit of clutziness. I’m near-sighted of eye and not exactly agile of foot. I probably need to pay attention when I’m walking or I’ll be endlessly scraping knees and hands and walking into trees, or other people. Perhaps there is a bit of an element of not wanting to appear even more of a book nerd than I am, but that is a minor concern.

So what has provoked my thoughts on this subject? Like many of my posts “on reading” it was a recent BookRiot guest post by Ilana Masad titled, “Readwalking: A Reader in Motion.” While she acknowledges the downsides–the hazards and the taunts of teenage boys among them, she also recounts the reasons why she loves to do this. One is that she really is a book nerd, and wrestles with the reality all of us do–that there are so many books, so little time. She’s an introvert, and sometimes the external world can be overwhelming and the retreat to a book a way to cope. Finally, and we really differ here, she likes the duality of real world/book world at the same time.

Obviously, there are people who see this differently than I do, enough apparently that there is a “WikiHow” with tips on “How to Read While Walking.” Some of the tips confirmed why I don’t do this–things like “have one hand free in case you fall” or “try to look up in front of you every couple of sentences or “every paragraph.” It seems to me that this makes for pretty distracted reading.

A few things do make sense, if you are still inclined to do this–don’t do this with books you want to mark up or write notes in, find books that are light weight, have large print, don’t read library books that could be damaged, particularly if it is threatening to rain, and don’t try to do this on a windy day. The books that have worked best for me on the treadmill are the page-turners, the same type of book that works well in an airport waiting area. You want something that you holds your attention, and that you can easily pick up when you are distracted with things like crossing streets, or stopping to talk to a neighbor who insists on talking with you even though you are giving off your best “I’m reading vibes.”

For me, a walk is its own joy, even in a crowded airport or city street. And curling up with a good book is a different one. It seems that too often we sacrifice savoring for just “getting things done.” We too often seem to define life by how much we can cram into it rather than by how fully we’ve lived each experience, each moment.

But that’s just one way of seeing it. If you are a reading walker, I’d like to hear your take on this. There are obviously a few of you out there!

Adult Coloring Books

Adult Coloring Books

The current top-selling adult coloring book

OK. I didn’t see this one coming. Do you know what the category was that saw the greatest increase in book sales this past year? It was art/architecture/photography and the increase of 60% over 2014 was driven by…adult coloring books! Many of these feature geometric patterns or intricate pictures that can be colored with pencils, ink, even crayons! Here is a sample, drawn from Amazon’s current best sellers in the category of coloring books for grownups.

Julie Beck wrote an interesting article in The Atlantic on “The Zen of Adult Coloring Books“. She describes her own discovery of these and why she thinks they have become the rage. Two things stood out. One was that they are huge stress-relievers. She writes:

“Coloring offers that relief and mindfulness without the paralysis that a blank page can cause. It’s easier in the way that ordering from a restaurant with a small menu is easier than deciding what you want at Denny’s, where you could eat almost anything. This is the paradox of choice, and it’s been well-studied—too many options is overwhelming. But with coloring, you know what you’re working with. You just choose how to fill it in.”

She also remarks that it is great to have something to do with one’s hands while watching TV. She confesses that a life of multi-tasking makes it difficult to devote all of one’s attention to what’s on the screen:

“In part, it’s because I feel a little less lazy if I’m making something while I wile away the hours with Friday Night Lights. But also, I’m watching TV in the first place to relax, to quiet my mind, and often my mind is loud enough that it shouts over Coach Taylor. I really do think that a lifetime of multitasking has left me occasionally incapable of subduing the entirety of my mind with one activity. If the front of my mind is occupied by the show, and the back is focused on picking colors and staying in the lines, there’s not room for much else. It’s a sort of mindfulness that’s more like mind-fullness.”

I found this last quite interesting. I wonder about this habit of multi-tasking and what it means for us that we don’t have pursuits to which we give our full and undivided attention. In later life I’ve become more engaged in artistic endeavors from painting and drawing to choral singing and writing. What I’ve found in all of these is that they require my full attention (maybe that reflects an aging brain!). And when I engage in such activities I truly feel more aware, more attentive.

I really don’t want to sound like an old crank, and I can see how coloring books can fill the time while watching a show, or waiting in an airline terminal–some activity that requires a certain amount of attention but not our complete attention. What I wonder is how long will this activity of filling in geometric shapes and mazes and figures occupy our attention? I wonder how many half-colored books we’ll see turning up in garage sales? Will used bookstores sell partially colored books?

I’d be curious what others think about this. I have to admit I haven’t tried this so I can’t write from the experience. I’d enjoy hearing from others, both those who tried adult coloring books and then put them down, and those who love these. When do you like to color and what does it do for you?