I have an attention span problem.
I don’t know if it’s just an unpleasant byproduct of being raised in the Nintendo Generation, or if it falls into the category of full on ADD (my aversion to mind altering medication combined with my admittedly anecdotal perception that it’s over-diagnosed has kept me from asking a doctor about it), but the fact remains that it takes considerable effort for me to concentrate on any one task at a given time. The really strange thing is that it seems born less out of a general lack of focus, but out of an uncannily misplaced sense of guilt. I learned a phrase in Economics class — possibly the only thing I learned there — that describes it fairly well: “opportunity cost”. If you’re not familiar with the term, it essentially boils down to the idea that every time you make a decision, it’s at the expense of an alternative one you could have made instead. Thus, the cost of seeing a movie is the $10, or whatever they’re charging these days, but the opportunity cost is all the other stuff that same money could have bought you or the things you could have done in the 2 hours you’re glued to a seat. By this same measure, even hanging onto your hard earned cash bears an opportunity cost in that you’re missing out on all the neat goods or services you could trade it for.
In my personal life, this same principle leads to frequent bouts of paralyzing indecision. Simple acts like watching a movie, playing a video game, hanging out with friends and, yes, reading a book are hamstrung in advance by my consternation over the chunk of time it’s likely to steal from me, a million other tasks left undone. Paradoxically enough this often leads to me trying to do 2, 3 or even half a dozen things at once, and in the process not really doing any of them at all. I’ll end up watching the same shows, playing the same games, and listening to the same music over and over because if I half do them while doing something else, I won’t really have missed anything.
It’s insane, I know! I’m so worried about not being able to do everything that I end up doing nothing. I understand that this self-defeating compulsion is not uncommon, and over time I like to think I’ve gotten better at combating it, if only by being aware of it. I go out with friends and co-workers more. I watch more movies, finish more video games, and listen to more albums. I’m reading more too, but that’s easily been the most uphill battle of them all. Part of it is the simple fact that I read at a downright glacial pace. Another part is that I have a hard time reading in motion. I don’t get carsick or anything, I just have an even harder time than normal concentrating in a moving vehicle, or when there’s an abundance of ambient noise. That rules out reading on my commute, during a flight, or even while sitting in a waiting room. Finally, and this may be the biggie, reading is the one activity that really cuts you off from all five of your senses; words are highly abstract representations of ideas, after all, so you can’t even really count “sight”. It’s just you and the images you create in your head, and I think more than anything it makes me fear I don’t have much of an imagination.
Like I said, I’ve made progress, but still find myself frustrated when I just can’t seem to get into a reading groove on a regular basis. My mind will wander and I’ll find that I’ve read a dozen pages without actually comprehending a word. At that point I’ll close the book (or more recently, turn off my Nook) in frustration and move on to something else. Every time this happened, I would halfheartedly turn my thoughts to audiobooks, and then quickly reject the idea.
There’s no real rational reason for my ambivalence. I guess it always felt like cheating. The snooty, high-brow, wannabe-intellectual in me would turn his nose up as soon as the thought entered my head. He’d think to himself, “that’s how the illiterate masses consume their Dean Koontz or Stephanie Meyer drivel when they’re too lazy to actually READ about shimmering emo vampires.” I’ve never even read either author’s books, they’re just what I imagine a good snob is supposed to judge someone for reading. And so it went.
Still, as my frustration grew, so did my resolve fade. It didn’t help that every podcast on the goddamn planet seems to be sponsored by audible.com, and my commute tends to be filled with offers for free books followed by “Tell ‘em [INSERT PODCAST HERE] sent you.” I guess advertising works, because the idea sounded more and more tempting every time I heard them. Besides, no self-respecting snob worth their salt is going to let anyone that enjoys Kevin Smith movies as much as I do into their club anyway. I finally capitulated.
I didn’t do it unconditionally, though. If I was going to dip my toe into the water, there were going to be some ground rules, by gum. I decided that whatever I tried out first was going to have to meet some criteria:
- Anything I had actively put in my mental to-read list is out of bounds. I didn’t know how I felt about this “listening to books” business, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to risk ruining anything I’ve been looking forward to.
- Anything I’ve previously read is out of bounds. It seemed like a waste. If I was going to do this, I should at least be experiencing something new.
- Anything abridged is out of bounds. I’m already compromising my (silly) principles here, and I’ll be damned if they’re gonna steal words from me too.
With that I set about the task of selecting my first book. After about an hour, I found what I was looking for: Philip K Dick’s A Scanner Darkly. It was perfect! I enjoy Dick’s work, and I remembered watching the movie a couple of years ago, so I had a passing familiarity with what I was in for without outright breaking rule #2. Plus, it’s read by Paul Giamatti, which certainly sounded interesting.
The audio file that made its way to my phone shortly thereafter was just over 9 hours long and I tore through it inside of four days. I think it’s fair to say it held my interest. The following weekend I related the above to a friend of mine, and before I could get halfway through my list of rules and regulations he said to me, “There are two books you should pick up: A Scanner Darkly, and World War Z.” As soon as I finished geeking out over the fact that I’d already picked out one of his recommendations on my own, I shared my concerns. I own World War Z, and had read it a couple of times already. Plus, the version online was clearly listed as “abridged”. Two out of three rules were broken right there. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “it’s worth your time. You should give it a listen anyway.”
When I got home and gave it a closer look, my doubts quickly disappeared. The cast list was absolutely mind-blowing. Carl Reiner, Rob Reiner, Mark Hamill, Henry Rollins, Alan Alda, and Max Brooks narrating. It looked more like a radio play than anything, and that seemed more than fitting for the books interview format. I caved. And once again, I ate it up.
Finally, I broke my final rule last week. I’ve been curious about John Dies at the End for a while, as I’d read a lot of its author’s work on Cracked.com (yet another thing to contribute to my lifetime ban from snob city). On top of that, Bryce Wilson, an online friend of mine, and prolific online fiction blogger, had been singing its praises for quite some time. Once again I caved, and once again, I was glued to the story from beginning to end. There was no celebrity reader this time, but I’ll be damned if Stephen R. Thorne’s horrendous Jack Nicholson impression didn’t turn out to be an oddly fitting match for John the charming slacker.
So there you have it. I can’t say I’ve completely shed the mental stigma I’d built up around audiobooks, and I’ll frequently self-consciously refer to the book I’m “readi… well, listening to”, but the ratio of “guilty” to “pleasure” is shrinking with every book. I don’t know that it’ll ever completely replace the allure of words on the page, but it’s nice to know that if nothing else, I have a decent way to take in a book on the way to work.