I’ve been experimenting with audiobooks, not only because they may one day replace the tree-eating variety, but also because I like the idea of listening to a book while performing other less entertaining tasks. Meetings fit that definition but turn out not to be good candidates for other reasons.

My brain has two main data input ports: my ears and eyes. Of the two, my ears seem to be the least utilized. However, I didn’t know if I could listen to a book and chew gum at the same time so I decided to test the idea out before I made a significant investment. I visited my public library’s audiobook section to see what books are available and in what format.

It turns out that finding a device that will play them is much more difficult than it should be.

Apparently, iPods don’t let people listen to free copyright-protected books. The library had a list of devices that could play most of the files but in the end, you have to buy one and try it. So, I bought the cheapest MP3 player ($39) on the list. It played the files but would start over at the beginning every time you stopped it. This is, of course, unacceptable for an audiobook. So, I searched the internet to find the best audiobook player and came up empty. What a mess. I finally stumbled upon a comment somewhere describing how to get a cheap MP3 player to hold its place. You turn it off without hitting stop or pause first. Never hit a button other than “off” or you will be starting all over. Interesting enough, this fact was not divulged in the operating instructions. The first one I bought also stopped working so I exchanged it. I fully expect this one to stop any day now as well.

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The sad state of standardization and the low quality of the cheaper players aside, I am happy to report that I am able to listen to a book while doing other things. Not all things mind you. I can’t read, talk, write, or watch TV while listening. But that’s about it. I find that I can do engineering type stuff while listening. I have always listened to music while doing those things and apparently an audiobook is similar. My brain is using a different area for those tasks. Most brains are pretty adept at parallel processing like any modern computer, as long as you are using different parts of your brain.

Following are the books I have listened to in the past three weeks while going about my business, along with a short synopsis of each:

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

This Wiki article sums the book up nicely. It’s fun to read stuff from the past. This book was written in 1985 while Reagan was president. The cover has a close-up of Reagan wearing a clown nose. Before television, nobody cared what a president looked like. They just wanted to know what he thought. Back in the 1860’s debates lasted for hours. People brought food and drink and cheered like it was a sports event. Television debates are not debates at all. They are more entertainment shoehorned into television formats and time slots.

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Home computers had just entered the market. He predicted that they would become just another means of amusing ourselves. He had no idea. I can’t imagine how much time is being wasted on computer games by our young. On the other hand, he also did not envision the rise of the Internet or that it would spawn the abomination called a blogger.

Apocalypse 2012 by Lawrence E. Joseph

One of the things I love to do is read between the lines to extract information the author did not mean to expose. This guy played with a jewel-encrusted sword as a child. It had been given to one of his ancestors by Napoleon. He was educated at Brown. My conclusion is that he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. The book ostensibly uses science to prove to us that the world is coming to an end in 2012. He also mentions at least half-a-dozen times that his wife has just left him.

He was commissioned to write the book, which gave him the freedom to travel all over hell’s half acre to gather material. This is a tried and true method used by publishers to make a book into a travelogue in addition to whatever else it is supposed to be.

He spends a lot of time trying to convince the reader that he is not just another end-of-the-world nut job. However, he failed to convince this reader. I rolled my eyes so much it gave me a headache. He either truly thinks the world is going to be in deep shit in 2012 or he is just claiming he thinks so to get people to buy his book.

The Art of War translated by John Minford

Human nature has not changed in the last few thousand years. Chinese warlords acted just like any modern day businessman.

The Assault on Reason by Al Gore

Gore documents the almost unimaginable incompetence of the Bush administration. He is also acutely aware of the power television has over Americans. That is why he created Current TV, which I need to check out one of these days.

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

I really enjoyed this. It gives you a peek into America at the time of its enlightenment. It was a time when everybody wanted to read books. Franklin describes some of his many errata (big screw-ups) as a youth. For example, he mentions the time he made an advance on the wrong woman (attempted to get into her pants, or more likely, up her hoop skirt) and practically gets run out of town as a result. He had a lot of close calls, both life threatening and financially threatening. Had any of these close calls come to fruition, we would never have heard of him today.

He came from a modest background, although not a poor one. He was a deist and referred without malice to the many proliferating religions of his time as sects, which is what they are. Today that word has taken on a negative connotation and is reserved for use by dominant religions to bash small ones. Our wise founding fathers allowed all sects so that no one sect could get a stranglehold on our government thanks to competition among them. All through history warlords have had a similar problem until some charismatic leader comes along capable of uniting them for one big spasm of destruction, mayhem and collapse.

Franklin was a player, the consummate businessman. Everything he did was calculated for potential future gain. Once his printing business was well established and being run by a competent partner he became a man of leisure, which freed him to do more tinkering and thinking. The printing press was equivalent to today’s Internet. We are living in great times.

The Map That Changed the World by Simon Winchester

Great book. We learn about the father of modern geology, William Smith. His work probably led to Darwin’s epiphany. Smith was not a wealthy man and was thwarted and abused by rich but dumb blockheads who plagiarized his work and prevented him from becoming a member of the Geologic society. Sound familiar? Rich blockheads can do a lot of damage.

The Trial and Death of Socrates by Plato

A classic example of what often happens when a critical thinker gets in the way of powerful interests. Socrates was a poor man. No one is sure exactly how he made a living. Condemned to death in 470 BC, but given a chance to escape, he chose death rather than break the laws of Athens. He mentioned the great Kings of Syria, and Egypt. The Battle of Thermopylae along with the destruction of Athens took place 10 years later.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass — An American Slave

A first hand account of the life of an American slave who escaped to the North. He was born 47 years before the end of the Civil war. Lots of interesting details of life at that time. Apparently mixed race children were becoming very common. He speculated that given enough time, the difference in races would disappear. Slave owners were actually enslaving and beating their own children. Things got worse as you moved south, giving rise I have been told to the term “being sold down river.” Douglas also had more than a few criticisms of certain sects of religion. Slavery will come raging back if ever given the chance. There is a pretty fine line between a demeaning, grueling job in the baking sun for a pittance and slavery.

Next up: The Political Brain by Drew Westen