Audiobook reflection

Lately, due to personal circumstances, I listen to audiobooks more than I read paper or digital books. In talking to people about audiobooks, I often find that, while they like the idea of audio - especially as it enables reading while walking, exercising or driving - they can be troubled by a wandering mind.

I'm the same.

It's not surprising one's mind wanders when reading, especially if the material is thought-provoking or challenging. After all, with a paper book you will quite naturally lift your eyes from the page, gaze into the middle distance and ponder awhile before lowering your eyes back to the page to continue. You might even take a note or two. Fair enough. When you think about it, reading is about so much more than merely eyeballs scanning words on a page. Or ears listening to words being spoken. You stop; you think; you visualise; you reread; you note; you refer; you put down and pace about… Reading can be a real mental decathlon sometimes.

And herein lies the rub with audiobooks: you are not nearly so in control of the reading process. You hit play, usually on a smartphone, then pocket said device. The audio is delivered into your ears at whatever pace the reader dictates (notwithstanding the feature most audiobook players have of slowing or speeding the playback). If you want to stop and ponder what you've just heard, you have to get your device and hit a button to pause it. This is, frankly, a fiddly process.

More often than not, you don't get a choice in the matter and your recalcitrant mind will wander off like a wayward toddler before you get to hit pause. The reading will, of course, continue regardless of where your mind is at. Once you become aware your mind has wandered and the narrative moved on, you're left reaching for your phone while cursing yourself for being so mentally weak and inattentive. So it becomes more about unexpected rewinding and self-flagellation than serenely pausing when you need to. This can happen a lot during the course of an audiobook. An awful lot. Compare this frustrating experience with the natural flow of eyes and hands on paper (or, if you prefer, eyes and hands on Kindle) and you could easily be forgiven for dismissing audiobooks as a deeply ineffective, annoying way to read.

To put this into context, I had a road trip of about four hours recently. I was listening to Ryan Holiday's excellent Ego is the Enemy. During that trip, I listened to maybe three hours at most. Somehow, I 'lost' an hour somewhere (at least) and yet it seemed like I was listening the whole time. In fact, I was listening the whole time, but because it was a good, crunchy, thought-provoking book, my mind wandered and pondered. A lot.

This got me thinking: why do I not get frustrated? I spend a lot of time rewinding and pausing, so surely I should be a fuming, addled wreck? This minor act of self-reflection led to a conclusion that was at once blindingly (deafeningly?) obviously and unobvious at the same time: I exclusively use bluetooth to listen to audiobooks. In the car, my earpiece has forward, rewind, pause and play controls. My over-the-head bluetooth headphones have the same for when I'm walking. I press that rewind button a lot. In the Audible app I use, it skips back 30 seconds. The act of doing this is so natural to me now, I do it almost subconsciously. My hand raises to my right ear; click; I'm back to where I need to be. Marvellous. Admittedly, it's not as delicate an interface as eyes-on-page, but it works for me.

While this is a fine solution for Wandering Mind Syndrome - for me at least - there is one thing I do still find frustrating that I would love to see addressed: bookmarking. The Audible app allows for you to bookmark what you've just listened to - a standard feature in most if not all audiobook apps. It'll save a little snippet of the reading so you can later scan through your bookmarks easily. With a good book, I can generate hundreds of these bookmarks. Or, at least, I would if it were as easy to bookmark as it is to play, pause, forward and rewind. Sadly, it is not. I still have to fiddle with the device to add one of these bookmarks. It's still pretty easy - it can be done from the lock screen - but it adds a layer of friction which means I don't bookmark as much as I'd like. The solution seems fairly simple: an extra button on bluetooth devices that can be mapped to a function in the app, much like you can do with mice on the desktop. Or - and this would probably be more useful - a way to remap existing buttons. For instance, I don't use the volume controls on the bluetooth headset - they're always set to maximum and I use the smartphone volume controls instead. Being able to remap the volume controls to functions of my choice would be a real boon.