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Making Space for Audiobooks: An Exercise in Mindfulness

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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 conundrum. I had missed my turn and lost my place in the story I was listening to because my mind had wandered off to a third unknown place. That is when I realized I was in trouble.

I love to read, but I also must 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 out great because a lot of the books I get access to are audiobooks, making it the perfect solution to the nebulous, ‘Where is the time’ problem. Until there came a point when no audiobook could hold my focus and I was having trouble keeping track of the simplest of plot lines let alone dialogues and nuance.

At this point, I had moved into concerning territory. The audiobooks for Wahala by Nikki May and Vladimir by Julia May Jones just sat on my shelves without me listening to them. I went on long walks to tune everything out but would switch to music 10 minutes in. Was it the narrators? I tried some of my favorites and nothing. Could it be I was in a reading slump? I finished six books during this time, all a mix of ebook and physical, so not it. Was I, heaven forbid, questioning audiobooks as a legitimate form of reading? Let’s not even go down that dark and done to death rabbit hole.

What could it be?

I turned my attention to a form of reading that was working well for me. I came upon an excerpt of Stolen Focus by Johann Hari, then picked up Twelve Monotasks by Thatcher Wine, and realized the problem was bigger than I had imagined. Both works in their own ways talk about split focus and mental capacity between so many tasks and how it stilts our ability to accomplish anything well. The picture started to become 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 got to work. I decided to try three different strategies for reclaiming my focus and am here to share the results.

Making a Memory Palace

As a consumer of all things Sherlock, this is a concept that I have often found intriguing. Building a memory palace is when you take a place extremely familiar to you and you attach the details you are trying to remember to different elements of this room. So, let’s say your safe space is your bedroom, you can assign the door of your room a detail 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 by focusing on the details of what I was reading in this way, I would be able to move along the story.

An audiobook I tried for this was The Cartographers by Peng Shepherd. This is an audiobook that I had been anticipating eagerly, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity. It is also a fantastical book about maps, the people who make them, and why they do so. Naturally, it was brimming with details that needed to be remembered.

As I tried this, it seemed like it worked in the beginning. But then it became exhausting. I began getting hung up on the room I would choose. Was the detail I was remembering truly that way? Before I knew it, I did not remember anything in the book or how my bedroom looked.

Mindfulness and Meditation

This did, however, evolve into a practice of mindfulness and meditation using audiobooks, which became my second experiment. The concept of mindfulness came into my life with Dan Harris’s 10% Happier. It is a word that is used quite a lot in contemporary vocabulary, but is one that requires deliberate action to become something beyond a word.

I indulged in this deliberate action. I sat down in one spot and increased the duration I would listen to my book daily. I went from 5 to 10 to 15 minutes. If I felt my focus shifting, I would make myself reverse the audio, retrace where I had left off, and start again. Cherrish Farrah by Bethany C. Morrow was a good candidate for this. It has a lot of commentaries on race, parenthood, and adolescence woven in with the story and watching them unfold together is where the strength lies.

But here is the thing. When I have the time to sit still even for 15 minutes, I prefer a physical book. My intention behind this exercise was to recalibrate my focus to where at any given point my point focuses on two tasks alone in a hierarchy with audiobooks being on top. My entire aim was to add moments of words and literacy to moments that have none. I know people likes to tout audiobooks and the passivity of listening to them as a negative, but that is its strength!

Word Focus

As my third step, I decided to go small. One of the things I recall from being a young reader is the joy of discovering new words and working them into sentences and essays. A way I would read classics as a younger reader I would underline words and look them up in a dictionary. This pause would allow context to form in my head around a word or around a situation, making it more memorable. I reverted to this practice. Pausing to focus on how much of the vocabulary I understood. I tried this with a work of recent non-fiction, In Sensorium. With a work of nonfiction there is naturally a lot of focus, re-focus involved, thus making it the perfect 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 propel the point forward. It gave me a natural incentive to listen carefully, while also managing to take care of some repetitive tasks.

Out of all three of my exercises, the third one was what eventually helped me get back into my audiobooks partially, if not completely. My favorite narrators, the pleasure of having a story in my ears, and escaping the monotony of listening to the same songs over and over is something I will never be ready to give up. It is also not lost on me, that giving it up or not, remains a choice, even if a fervent one.

I have been trying to do whatever I do with care, precision, and a masterful hand, and this exercise was one of the many more to come. Next up, how to ice a two-layer chocolate ganache cake (while listening to my audiobook).