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By Carlo Rotella

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"There I am, under a stack of weights, listening to Elizabeth telling off Mister Darcy for declaring his feeling for her in an insufficiently gentleman-like manner."     Jane Austen

I tend to be skeptical about the effect of gee-whiz technological advances on our minds in general and our reading habits in particular. Yes, I know, there’s a universe of information at our fingertips and all that, and these advances make life better in many ways. But not in all ways. High-tech multitasking and constant communication, for instance, often just provide excuses to be rude, sloppy, lazy, or childishly distracted. And online reading, for all its promise of infinite hyperlinked breadth, is to reading a book roughly as nine-ball is to straight pool: it tends to maximize eventfulness and choice at the expense of depth.

But there’s one technological advance in reading in the past few years about which I’m completely enthusiastic. I regard it as a major improvement that I can listen to a book on a near-weightless device while I go for a run or work out at the gym. Cigar factory workers of yore used to chip in to pay a reader, but I work on my own, and I can’t listen to someone else read while I write. By allowing me to read and exercise at the same time, ipod and audiobooks grant more of the right kind of life. It’s a rare case in which new technology extends the precious supply of time when you can pay intimate attention to another person’s voice and story without being interrupted by competing technology--a ringtone or inbox chime. You do have to remember to be alert when you’re crossing the street, but you can find running routes, like riverside paths, that cut that necessity to a minimum.

And I find that when I’m exercising, the quality of concentration, my sense of entering the author’s world as the author enters mine, is especially sharp. I’m no Olympian who needs to focus on high-performance workouts; I can just put my body on autopilot, and getting the whole system warmed up and flowing has the odd effect of making my mind more acutely intent on the reader’s voice in my head. You could well argue that I’m rationalizing yet another retreat from human contact, but I think not. Especially at the gym, where all I’m shutting out is “Eye of the Tiger” on the sound system and guys around me talking about what they eat, I feel as if I’m missing what should be missed in order to hear what should be heard.

I particularly enjoy being carried away from there by the most inappropriate books, like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. There I am, under a stack of weights, listening to Elizabeth telling off Mister Darcy for declaring his feeling for her in an insufficiently gentleman-like manner. And I’m thinking, “Yeah, fie upon you, Mister Darcy. Now pray excuse me, for I must do a set of squats."

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Learning Tours 2014: Celtic Sojourn