I was in my early twenties when I first started listening to audiobooks, and I found it interesting to imagine how I might seem to others around me.
I had no car at the time, so I found it very convenient to listen to audiobooks as I walked through the city on my way from one place to the next.
And for some reason I never used headphones. Maybe it was a concern for safety … I don’t remember for sure. I was the nerdier version of that sort of person you might encounter today listening to music as he wheels his way down the sidewalk.
I would nestle my smartphone on top of my shoulder, under my shirt, where it was reasonably secure against falling to the ground and also close enough to my ear that I wouldn’t miss a phrase when an obnoxiously loud vehicle roared past.
And thus I walked through the city, a disembodied voice speaking from my shoulder like a well-educated little parrot.
I was listening to history, to philosophy, to economics, to fiction, to essays. But someone who cycled past me on the sidewalk, who heard not the content but just the sound of an audiobook, might be forced to supply the content in the form of a guess.
What could they guess? What sort of person striding down the street would care so much about a body of texts, and what would that person listen to? There were a few possible answers to the question that I could think of.
1. The Fundamentalist. Maybe they figured I was someone very religious, listening to revivalist preachers, sermons about hellfire, about the righteous and the wicked.
2. The Marxist. Or maybe they wondered if I was someone being brainwashed into the thinking of communism, learning to use terms like alienation and bourgeois and wage-slavery.
3. The Esotericist. Or maybe they thought I was someone who believed there was cosmic wisdom to be found in crystals and Eastern scriptures, learning to tap the energies of the universe through my oneness with the way of non-violence.
And maybe I was wrong in those guesses. Maybe they thought I was listening to something else entirely. I feel pretty sure, though, that not many could have guessed my real purpose.
I was setting out on the Arnoldian quest to find the best that has been thought and said. I was seeking to remake my mind. I wanted to be able to understand the thoughts of the brightest and wisest minds in the world, in all of history.
A big goal, I know. It’s a long path, which few of us will ever get anywhere close to completing, but it’s no less worth the walking. We’ll certainly never finish if we don’t get it started.