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Books that become waves

ESSAY / What happens when we listen to a book while we are also doing something completely different?

Like so many other panicked, middle-aged men, I started the year 2022 by joining a fitness center. It was perhaps decisive that the center opened right in the neighbourhood, so I could easily go there and thus integrate some exercise into my working life. It was also decisive, however, that the stomach had gradually started to grow. That it had become more unmanageable, more difficult to control. I thought, I have to do something, before the balloon above the belt becomes too violent. Arriving at the fitness center on a bitterly cold January afternoon, I immediately see the common feature of almost all fitness people: the earphones – or with a slightly smarter name, earpods. Virtually all motion-sensing beings in the center had these technologies in their ears. Ergo, no one spoke together. It wasn't a conversation, you had come for it. People had come to get sweat on their foreheads, and as part of this exercise something was obviously going to go into the ear.

And let me confess right away: I only did one fitness trip, before I also showed up with a pair of headphones. Thereby we approach what I would like to discuss in this text, namely the rather strange phenomenon of consuming cultural products, such as music, literature and film, while one is engaged in something quite different.

On the exercise bike

Will the modern man for all intents and purposes avoid being bored? Can modern man not bear to be alone with himself – does he fear loneliness?

In a way, they are all alone because they have these headphones in their ears.

The sight in the fitness center of the exercising people side by side toiling away on the machines, while they have another machine in their ear, is a rather strange sight. In a way, they are all alone, and almost more alone, because they have these earphones in their ears and thus cannot talk to each other. At the same time, they are not completely alone, because they hear sounds. Something is being communicated to them. Now I can't know what they are listening to, but my imagination or perhaps even prejudice tells me that they are probably listening to music, the vast majority of them. I did that too on the first day with the earphones. Then I briefly switched to TV series, because I am more interested in TV series than in music. I sat there on the exercise bike and was drawn into the otherwise highly recommended series The Landscapers. Swallowed section after section but also discovered that I either got dizzy on the bike or started riding so slowly that it could hardly be called exercise anymore. It was as if my cognitive apparatus could not cope with having to relate to the image and sound at the same time as my body had to exert itself on the bike. That's why I stopped watching TV series and switched to audio literature.

I hear literate

Naturally, there are some huge differences between hearing and reading literature. When we hear literature, it is communicated to us in another person's voice. Often it is the author himself who loads the book, but it can also be others. In fact, becoming a professional audiobook downloader is probably a career path. One could immediately say that a book read by the author speaks directly to us. That we hear the sender, the original creator of the words, speak his words directly to us. But I still experience a distance, which is not present, when I read. When reading, it is our own voice that we hear. Or perhaps rather a concoction of our voice, including the overall narrator's voice, the author's voice and perhaps the voice that the character in question could be thought to have in the textual situation. So a far more complex expression than the purely aural one.

Another marked difference between heard and read literature is that we must concentrate on listening to that extent, if we are to maintain the connection to the read book. It can happen so easily. Our thoughts can wander and then we suddenly discover that we haven't listened at all after the last few minutes and have thereby lost our grip on the book.

Then I could ride my bike there, watch tattooed muscle men in the fitness center and hear Pape tell me stories about criminal gangs.

The most significant difference, however, is that the literature heard is often experienced, while we are doing something else. Like me there on the exercise bike in the fitness center. Most of February was spent with Morten Pape's second book in the Amager trilogy, the one called "God's Best Children", a book that takes place among the criminal circles in Denmark. Then I could ride my bike there, watch tattooed muscle men in the fitness center and hear Pape tell me stories about criminal gangs, fights and hash deals. In this way, it infiltrates the literary reality heard and vice versa. Because we obviously cannot be satisfied by doing only one thing, literature becomes a layer into reality. I listen to literature, while I wash dishes, while I vacuum, while I go for a walk, while I'm in the gym, while I'm sitting in the plane on the way to Las Vegas.

"Exercise equipment with VR is the future."

Already being there before arrival

The literature read is also linked to the places where it is consumed. Thus I now think back on my annual ski holiday in Norway, which one trip there consisted of Jakob Skyggebjergs The inner circle, Franz Hessels A day between two world wars og Daniel Kehlmann's Tyll. The daytime activity was uniform. It was always cross-country skiing, but afternoons and evenings were separated by the book I was reading.

On the ferry home to Denmark, I get started Josefine Klougarts All this you could have. The ship rocks, I can see out over the sea, and I can paste Klougart's words about nature into these waves. Books that become waves. The words on the page turn into thoughts about my own childhood and nature, not least. How the work encourages me to return to the simple life. Is it simple? Looking after the horses, picking the carriers, boiling the juice? That work gives me the urge to persevere and to cultivate the nature, where my life is now. Winter bathing in the bay. Mark the trees in Rii's forest. Walk through the cemetery in the dark.

I recently traveled to Las Vegas to attend a research conference. Even before the plane takes off, I have music in my ears and an open book in my hands. Therefore, the road to Frankfurt is drawn by Houellebecq's thoughts in the collection of essays Interventions. Two ideas keep rattling around in my head, while I'm moving at 800 kilometers an hour. First there is Houellebecq's reflection above the navel. He chats about the navel-gazing, which gets legs to walk on in such a writing as the one I'm working on here. He also deals with the physical aspect – that the navel is the hole, where we were once connected to our mother, but which was cut to now be a place where our insides are just behind the lumpy cut. Can our guts suddenly decide to spill out of us. Do we just have a thin wall between the inside and the outside?

Photo: Steffen Moestrup

USA

En route to the USA, I begin Daniel Dencik's work Snappy. The book takes place precisely in the destination I am on my way to: a colorful, competitive USA. Thus, I am already present in the country, before I am physically present. This is also how literature behaves. Writes into the world, shapes it and becomes part of the world.

In the hectic, colorful and almost dystopian noisy casino area.

While reading, I forget the time. I am in two places at once and time seems to be strangely absent. It's a bit like the casinos in Las Vegas. I live at The Mirage and no matter what time of day, I venture around the hectic, colorful and almost dystopian noisy casino area there is the same experience of time or perhaps rather non-time. It's as if the clock is always the same here or as if time doesn't exist at all. It is probably cunningly devised to make us play more and play regardless of what the outside world may tell us about the temporal division of life and what we should be doing right now. 

The simultaneous consumption of a cultural product at the same time as another activity undoubtedly affects the cultural product one is about to consume. But so does the world itself, the place, one's mood and state of mind in the situation itself, where one consumes the cultural product. Art is always in dialogue with the world and with our selves. It all branches out and entangles itself in each other. Isn't it a continuous mess?

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Steffen Moestrup
Regular contributor to MODERN TIMES, and docent at Denmark's Medie- og Journalisthøjskole.

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