Audiobooks and the Merciless March of Time

Joel and I, like much of the literate and bibliomaniac world which feels pressed by the brutal exigencies of mundane tasks in our increasingly routinized and mechanized lives, have been listening to audiobooks for some years now. This morning, Joel sent me a text and asked whether I thought that his stats represented “too much or too little”:

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Joel’s listening time

When I received the message, I was impressed but also had no idea about my own total listening time, and was surprised to see that it far outstripped his:

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Erik’s listening time

Surely, these would represent Achillean feats of heroism if they were statistics recording solid (i.e. continuous) listening or – even better – reading time, but while I know that Joel will listen to audiobooks as he is running, and I will typically listen to them as I walk the dogs, most of our listening is nevertheless done while driving to work or completing the various mindless tasks and chores which take us away from the real business of life. Our conversation reminded me immediately of the scene at the beginning of the Trimalchio episode in Petronius’ Satyricon:

“He has a clock and a trumpeter supplied in his dining room so that he can know from them how much of his life he has wasted.” [Petronius, Satyricon 26]

Horologium in triclinio et bucinatorem habet subornatum, ut subinde sciat quantum de vita perdiderit!”

That is, even though much of the commuting and chore time represented by these statistics has been considerably enriched and enlivened by these audiobooks, it nevertheless represents time which is, in a very meaningful sense, wasted. Time spent doing things which require some distraction or entertainment as a palliative to make them endurable. To be sure, I feel that I live a happy and productive life, but few things can cast a shade of gloom over lived experience quite like the information derived from the merciless and automatic collection of information, and the reduction of one’s life to a series of marketable data points. Between the two of us, we have spent nearly five solid months distracting ourselves from one task or the other – how much of life has slipped away!

“As we speak, spiteful time will have fled from us…” [Horace, Odes 1.11]

Dum loquimur, fugerit invida aetas

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