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The other day, I was driving and listening to my audiobook when I found myself in the middle of a strange enigma. I had missed my turn and lost my place in the story I was listening to because my mind had wandered to an unknown third place. That’s when I realized I was in trouble.
I like to read, but I also have to read a lot for work. Then there is also the reality of being an adult in this world, where multitasking is necessary. It all works great because a lot of the books I have access to are audiobooks, which makes it the perfect solution to the nebulous “where’s the time” problem. Until there came a time when no audiobook could hold my attention and I found it difficult to follow even the simplest plots, let alone dialogues and nuances.
By this point, I had moved into troubling territory. audio books for Wahala by Nikki May and vladimir by Julia May Jones just sitting on my Libro.fm shelves without me listening to them. I would take long walks to cut it all out but switch to music 10 minutes later. Was it the narrators? I tried some of my favorites and nothing. Could it be that I was in a reading crisis? I finished six books during that time, all a mix of ebook and physics, so not that. Was I, God forbid, questioning audiobooks as a legitimate form of reading? Let’s not even go down that dark, dead rabbit hole.
What could it be?
I turned my attention to a form of reading that worked well for me. I came across an excerpt from Stolen Focus by Johann Hari, then taken over Twelve monotasks by Thatcher Wine, and I realized the problem was bigger than I had imagined. Both works in their own way speak to the shared focus and mental capacity between so many tasks and how this hinders our ability to do anything well. The picture was starting to get a little clearer. I had to reclaim that part of the focus, which I had lost along the way, that had made me an accomplished audiobook listener.
So, for the past few weeks, I’ve been at work. I decided to try three different strategies to regain my focus and I’m here to share the results.
Build a memory palace
As a consumer of all things Sherlock, it’s a concept I’ve often found intriguing. Building a memory palace is when you take a place that is extremely familiar to you and attach the details you are trying to remember to different elements of that room. So, let’s say your safe space is your bedroom, you can assign your bedroom door a detail that you might want to remember. I took this idea and used it to remember different details of the chapter I was in the middle of. The idea was that by focusing on the details of what I was reading in this way, I would be able to move forward in the story.
An audiobook I tried for this was Cartographers by Peng Shepherd. It’s an audiobook I’ve been looking forward to, so this seemed like the perfect opportunity. It’s also a fantastic book about cards, the people who make them and why they do them. Naturally, it was full of details to remember.
As I tried this it seemed like it worked at first. But then it got exhausting. I started hanging on to whichever piece I would choose. Was the detail I remembered really like this? Before I knew it, I couldn’t remember anything in the book or what my room looked like.
Mindfulness and Meditation
This however evolved into a mindfulness and meditation practice using audiobooks, which became my second experience. The concept of mindfulness came into my life with Dan Harris 10% happier. It’s a word that’s used quite a bit in contemporary vocabulary, but requires deliberate action to become something beyond a word.
I engaged in this deliberate action. I sat in one place and increased the amount of time I listened to my book daily. I went from 5 to 10 to 15 minutes. If I felt my focus shift, I would force myself to reverse the audio, return to where I left off, and start over. Cherish Farrah by Bethany C. Morrow was a good candidate for this. It has a lot of commentary about race, parenthood, and adolescence built into the story and watching them unfold together is strength.
But here’s the thing. When I have time to sit even for 15 minutes, I prefer a physical book. My intention behind this exercise was to recalibrate my focus where at some point my focus is on two tasks alone in a hierarchy with audiobooks in mind. My whole goal was to add moments of words and literacy to moments that don’t. I know people like to brag about audiobooks and how passive they are to listen to, but that’s its strength!
Focus on words
As a third step, I decided to go small. One of the things I remember as a young reader is the joy of discovering new words and turning them into sentences and essays. One way I read the classics as a young reader was to underline words and look them up in a dictionary. This pause would allow context to form in my head around a word or situation, making it more memorable. I returned to this practice. Pause to focus on how much vocabulary I understood. I tried this with a recent non-fiction work, In Sensorium. With non-fiction work, there is naturally a lot of focus, focus, which makes him the ideal candidate.
This was by far my favorite exercise to pursue. I found myself appreciating the way words were woven into a narrative and the power they held to drive the point forward. This naturally prompted me to listen carefully, while managing to deal with some repetitive tasks.
Of my three exercises, the third is what ultimately helped me partially, if not completely, re-immerse myself in my audiobooks. My favorite storytellers, the thrill of having a story in your ears, and escaping the monotony of listening to the same songs over and over again is something I’ll never be willing to give up. It’s also not lost on me whether to give it up or not remains a choice, however fervent.
I tried to do everything I did with care, precision, and skill, and this exercise was one of many to come. Next, how to frost a two-layer chocolate ganache cake (while listening to my audiobook).