On my last post, I quoted at length a method of reading. Essentially, you read until whatever you're reading strikes some sort of a chord with you, and then you go off on a tangent, pursuing whatever line of thought the reading material at hand prompted. I don't actually read like that. When your reading is directed toward a 14 000 page comp exam, you don't time to stop and think about the roses. Although to be fair, I didn't read like that before the comp either. My reading habits tend to pretty linear: you go sentence by sentence, page by page, and the story accumulates around you. My exception is dialogue; I like to think I have an ear for story dialogue. I certainly have a preference for it, since if a work of fiction is getting too descripty for my tastes, I often jump ahead to the next big speech. It does mean that I miss the fine details sometimes (I remember having to go back with Neal Stephenson's Anathem the first time around to find where, exactly, the climax happened, because I pretty much missed it), but it works for me. Honestly, I think I never would have finished Lord of the Rings otherwise.
So the tangential method not how I read books. It is, however, how I listen to music. I'll hear a tune, or a few lines, and my mind will instantly drift off to other things I associate with it: where I listened to that song previously, people I associate with a set of lyrics, other songs that remind me of it, etc. And by the time the drifting is finished, so is the song, and I'm always mildly surprised when I "come to" and something new is playing. The same holds for live performances--not that I've been to many, but of the, uh, one, I've been to, it unfolded in much the same manner. (And to go off on a tangent here, the tangential is also how I listen in general; I learned a long, long time ago that if I'm not taking detailed notes during a lecture, I'm not going to actually learn a damn thing.)
But with most music, I think it makes sense that it's never what I'm focusing on. I listen to it when I'm heading out to the store, or biking to the university, or out for a run. In other words, it's what I do when I'm in transit. And just like the journey is rarely the point of the transition movement, what I'm doing on the transition is rarely the main focus either. So I tend to drift. (I also tend to burst into song, when the mood strikes me, and I manage to convince myself that no one can hear me. Which is rarely the case, especially when I'm on my bike. You know how some people driving forget that other people can see them? Well, when I'm biking, I forget that other people can hear me. Can hear me singing loudly. Oops.)
Normally, this isn't a problem. If you miss a song, you can just go back and hear it again. It started to become a bigger deal when I started with my "books on tape" series. (The proper term, I think, is "audio book"; there's no actual tape, and there hasn't been for quite some time. But "books on tape" sounds better to me.) I thought that the half-hour or so a day I spent in transit could be better spent listening to something edifying. The edification started with Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey. It was actually a few days before I realized that not only was I developing a very scattered notion of the plot, I was getting some weird de ja vu as well. After some manual examinations of my playlist, I realized that I had not only put the book on my Ipod three times, which meant that I was getting each chapter three times, I had also set it on shuffle, so I was getting them in a random order. And it took me a few days to notice this. The tangential listening method had been so ingrained that I could have been listening to Metallica lyrics. As long as a prim, middle-aged British woman was reading them out, I'd never had known the difference. From this wonderful experience, I devised a few rules for later book on tape listening:
1. Pick books read by British people. Northanger Abbey experience to the contrary, people with accents that differ minimally from the norm are easier to pay attention to than people with no discernible accent or thick accents.
2. Pick books that are anthologies. Generally, the longer the work, the harder it is to stay focused. A book of short stories is perfect, especially if the length of the story corresponds roughly to the length of your travels. This rule led me to G. K. Chesterton's Club of Queer Trades (which is in the public domain, and can thus be found easily online).
3. Pick books read by their authors, or famous people. The latter makes the book easier to pay attention to, and the former actually might add a dimension. I've heard the argument that listening to a book rather than reading it adds another level of interference between you and the author's "intentions." But if the author is actually reading the book to you, then he or she knows exactly where to place each emphasis and pause, which may actually add to the "authenticity" of the work. (Sorry for the quotation marks, but after a lit theory comp, I can't let either term pass by blithely anymore.)
These three rules led me to Neil Gaiman's M is for Magic, a book of short stories all read by Neil Gaiman. He has a great voice and storyteller ability, which helps a lot. In fact, I imagine there is a direct correlation between the level of the author's resemblance to a story teller as opposed to writer and the level of quality of an audio version of their work. But I'll muse on that some other time.