One of my practices when I teach yoga is to begin and end each class with a quote. It’s a take-it-or-leave-it kind of thing, a nugget of wisdom students can choose to hold onto or let it go as soon as they hear it. I find this a perfect way to open and close a session without cultural appropriation, without making a class about me or my needs, and a means of weaving into the class my love of words. Students tell me they appreciate it, and I appreciate it when a teacher does the same when I’m in the role as student.
I’m particularly fond of a quote by Pico Iyer that I borrowed from one of my teachers. He writes in his book The Art of Stillness: “In an age of speed, nothing could be more invigorating than going slow. In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still.”
When I pull this one out, either as student or teacher, I desire nothing more than to slow down, to close my eyes, and to listen to the world around and inside me.
Three years ago, I served on my first audiobook award jury. I was tasked with listening to hundreds of hours of audio in a short time frame, roughly three months, and ranking those books from strongest to weakest. The rules were straightforward: determine how well the book works on audio, how well the performer delivers the story, and the strength of the production. To do this work well, I was to listen to the entire audiobook, start to finish, and at speed. In order to be honest and thoughtful and thorough with judging, it mattered to pay attention throughout the entire production and to do so at the pace at which it was recorded.
Until that point, I’d only ever listened to audiobooks at 1.25 or 1.5 speed. I was able to listen to more books, consume more stories, and work down my to-listen and to-read list much quicker than I could imagine. I was able to pick up everything I needed to.
Or, at least, I thought I was.
It was a difficult experience. Some of those books were downright terrible, and listening to them slowly, thoughtfully, and thoroughly made reading more of a chore than enjoyment. I found myself resentful at times, frustrated to listen to books which didn’t meet the criteria for the category, nor did they offer anything interesting or noteworthy for judging.
I also listened to some of the best audiobooks I’ve ever enjoyed. Though few and far between, those audiobooks imprinted in my mind and return to me again and again. They are titles I constantly recommend, and though they’re not my typical reading preferences, they left an impact. To this day, the performer’s voice echoes in my mind, and just seeing the cover for those books takes me back to the exact place I was as I listened.
I sat on two more audiobook juries in 2020, one which would narrow a wide field into a short list, and one which would select a winner from a short list. The categories were different from one another and different from the first jury on which I’d sat. Same rules applied: all the way through and at speed.
Hundreds of hours of audiobooks at speed meant an abundance of time to devote to mindless tasks. I cleaned my house. I built the nursery for my baby due in the spring. I played hours of Candy Crush, Sonic the Hedgehog, Katamari Damacy, Two Dots, all on my phone, burning through the battery like never before. I turned to puzzles, and I discovered that I could finish a shorter audiobook by doing a 500 piece puzzle in a couple of sittings. I could whip out a 1000 piece puzzle and lean into the longer audiobooks, wrapping up those performances around the same time I’d wrap up the puzzle, depending on the level of challenge it presented. I laughed through many of the books — I listened to a lot of humor — and I cried through a number of books — realistic middle grade reads. I connected with stories in a way I never had before on audio.
It was all because I slowed down.
Iyer’s words come back to me again and again as I download and listen to new audiobooks, post-committee. In an age of speed, indeed, nothing is more invigorating than going slow. Much as I love plowing through book after book, taking more books off my to-listen list and being able to push more onto it, sitting with an audiobook at speed was delectable. Each word carried weight, each intonation from the performer a way to notice nuance, each and every observation in the text brought to life, piece by piece. Instead of racing through a story to finish a story, going at speed forced me to be more mindful. Did the performer have a purposeful accent? Did it add to the character? To the humor?
In an age of distraction, attention is an act of luxury. Forced slowness meant not only being able to attend to the book at hand, but it meant remembering more of what I read. On Sunday night drive-through dinner dates with my husband during this period of listening, we’d share what we’d been reading or thinking about through the week, and the ability to recall anecdotes in the book I was listening to was unlike any time before. I shared jokes told in humorous memoirs, fun turns of phrase I’d heard and committed to memory, gave opinions on why he may like something I’d been listening to.
I kept my hands busy with mindless things in order to give full attention mentally to listening. It was a true act of self-care, and one of tremendous luxury. Putting my headphones in and sitting down to work on a puzzle meant engaging, not dissociating, with words, with story.
Sitting still is something we all benefit from, and it doesn’t necessarily mean silence. It means engagement with that stillness. For me, it was understanding why listening to audiobooks at speed, rather than what speed I thought I should listen at to consume more, was vital. We are only given so many hours here, and only so many books can be part of our lives.
But in a capitalist, consumerist world, eschewing the need to do more, to listen to more, to speed through is the work of a lifetime. It is essential work. It is the work of stillness, luxury, attention.
Maybe what we all need is to slow down and allow words to do what it is they’re best at: helping us make meaning of story, of narrative, of nuance. Words help us make meaning of life. In an era where we’re at breakneck speed, where the news bombards us with disturbing stories, where we’re rushing place to place in order to do more and be more, nothing could be more radical than stepping back and doing the opposite. Rebellion doesn’t need to be loud to be meaningful.
That tug of resistance makes us human. Listen to it. Ask why it’s arising. Question whether or not that resistance is adding to or subtracting from your life.
Turn down your audiobook speed. Let yourself feel unsettled or uncomfortable. Then be still and explore the magic that arises when you’re truly plugged into what you’re hearing.