To Focus On (Exactly) Two Things

A few weeks ago I had to drive to Little Rock, Ark., to cover a towboat christening for my work. I drove down there on a Friday, attended the christening on Saturday morning, and returned home that afternoon; the driving, round trip, was about 800 miles.

St. Louis to Little Rock might be one of the most boring drives in the country. It’s 400 miles of divided four-lane highway that cuts between endless flat farmland. The closest thing to a highlight is Cape Girardeau, Mo. If you’ve driven past Cape Girardeau on I-55, you will understand how depressingly bleak the drive is.

I was prepared for this trip, though. A day or so before I left, I went to the library and checked out a couple of audio books: Have A Little Faith by Mitch Albom, and Home by Toni Morrison. I ended up listening to Albom on the way down, and Morrison on the way back. (Both books were read by their authors for the audio versions.) I’ll get to the content in a moment, but I mainly wanted to discuss what it felt like to listen to literature, which was pretty much a new experience for me.

The conception I’d always had—one that was shared by just about everybody I mentioned it to—was that listening to an audio book would require too much concentration to be able to safely drive at the same time.

What I found, though, was just the opposite; although it did take a lot of focus to be able to listen to the books, it complemented, rather than compromised, my concentration on my driving.

Normally, I’d be listening to music when I drive, either a stack of CDs or whatever I could find on the radio. But music can get old after a while. Even if you’ve found CDs that perfectly fit your mood, sooner or later you’re going to get a less-than-perfect song, and your mind is going to drift to other subjects, like how much further you have to drive. What can be great about music—that it gives your mind room to roam and think about new things—can be detrimental on a long drive, when all you really want is to get there and what you don’t want is to think about how long it will be before you get there.

But shortly after I put in the first Mitch Albom CD, I found myself caught up in not just  the story, but also in the very act of focusing on the story. I realized that listening to this book was going to take considerably more concentration than simply listening to music. And as the story unfolded before me, I was completely engrossed in it, unable to think about anything else. besides the story and the highway.

I eventually had to force myself to take breaks every hour or so, I was concentrating so hard.

Speed-reading experts will tell you that one of the keys to reading is to NOT go back and reread. If you get through a paragraph or a page and you think you didn’t completely “get it,” you should just plow ahead and not try to go back and recover the meaning of what you just read. I’ll admit that I’m a pretty slow reader, and that kind of rereading is one of the reasons why.

But when listening to audiobooks, it’s all but impossible to rewind and relisten to something if you missed a word or two. Sure, you can go back to the beginning of the chapter, but that could take you back five or ten minutes in the story, and you really don’t want to do that. So you just continue going forward, focusing more carefully so you don’t miss anything else.

And it worked. By listening, I finally learned the lesson all those rapid-reading gurus were preaching. Just keep going forward. You do catch up. But it also taught me to concentrate even closer. I had to train myself to tune out everything else. I wouldn’t try this while driving down the Pacific Coast Highway or someplace like that where there’s actual scenery, but for St. Louis to Little Rock, it was perfect.

As for the driving, I don’t think the focus on the books hampered my ability to drive safely in the least. It’s possible that driving and listening to prose engage completely different sections of the brain, because I found I was able to concentrate on both the words and the road, with neither one getting in the way of the other. And yes, I know no person can judge his own driving skills, but I honestly felt I stayed more in tune with the driving part of it than on other recent driving trips.

As for the books, I really liked the Albom book, which I listened to first. It’s a non-fiction account, the stories of two men: the rabbi from Albom’s synagogue when he was growing up, who asks Albom to give his eulogy; and an inner-city pastor who runs a homeless shelter. Both are fantastic, huge characters, and Albom tells their stories in alternating chapters, while  discovering a lot about himself and about faith along the way.

Home was also a good listen. As with Have A Little Faith, this was my first book I’d read/listened to by the author. It’s the story of a poor brother and sister  in the South and how they deal with various traumas—his, the brutality of the Korean War, and hers, a shiftless first husband and then being the unwitting experimental subject of an unscrupulous doctor. It’s a smaller book, but Morrison reads it at a slow pace, so the audio version takes about as long as the Albom book. I found Home a little harder to follow than Have A Little Faith, in part because the point of view shifts back and forth between a number of the characters. But again, I was able to lock down the focus and concentrate on it, and the miles flew by, unnoticed.

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1 thought on “To Focus On (Exactly) Two Things”

  1. I LOVE listening to books. Teachers read aloud to us throughout elementary, and it was one of my favorite things in school; one summer I listened to Around the World in 80 Days on a reel to reel player at Grandma Stobaugh’s that she had through a govt. program for the blind; I found some short story collections that were perfect length for a commute. Many good memories of being read to. Maybe I should get my radio/player fixed in my car after all. Or not. I kinda like silence in town. But on a roadtrip? Just me and a narrator. Love it….I liked Have a Little Faith more than Five People You Meet in Heaven (ever ready that by Albom?). For some reason, I never connected with the main character of Five People, though I did like the premise of the book.

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