Bailey Thomson Professor
Journalism Department
Box 870172
University of Alabama
Tuscaloosa, AL 35487
Tel: 205-348-8617
Fax: 205-348-2780


April 2, 2001

Joys of the Electronic Word

By Bailey Thomson

Lately, I have been walking around the house attached to earphones.

Rigged up in this fashion, I look a lot like my students -- except they are young and have more hair. Earphones are an essential accessory on campus. Sometimes students even take them off to talk to one another between music tracks.

But Iím doing something radical: Iím reading a book.

My earphones attach me to an electronic file in the memory of my new MP3 player.† The sound is clear and crisp. Often Iím listening to the voice of the author. Itís almost like sitting across from him for a private reading.

Take my latest book, for example: Thomas Friedmanís ďThe Lexus and the Olive Tree.Ē Itís a discourse on how economic globalization has replaced the old world order we knew during the Cold War.

Countries can adapt to the competitive and open way of doing business now. For example, they can try to produce and sell something as desirable to global markets as a Lexus automobile. Or they can struggle to hold on to a bunch of olive trees, rooted in worn-out soil. In other words, they can be become irrelevant.

That book was one of many I had on my list to read, but somehow I never got to it. Nor did I read Thomas Cahillís ďHow the Irish Saved Civilization,Ē although I enjoyed his† other two works in the same series.

But what can you do when you spend an hour or more a day answering e-mail? Or youíre juggling your duties at work and home with civic obligations? Time just seems to run out around 10 oíclock every evening, when the eyes start drooping.

Then I thought about when I do have some free time. I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time driving from one meeting to another, often at some distance from where I live. Now thereís some reading time, if only I had the books on cassettes to enjoy.

So I bought a condensed volume and plugged the first tape into my truckís cassette player. That method worked pretty well, except what do you do when you are out of your vehicle, but you want to finish the book? I tried a portable cassette player. It worked all right, but it was bulky. Also, I kept misplacing my tapes.

By some coincidence, I happened to read an advertisement for an electronic version of a book on tape. I went to the companyís web site, The choices astonished me. Not only were there condensed books, but in some cases the whole works.

All I had to do was pay for the service and download the files to my laptop computer. I had books available anytime I wished to plug my earphones into the computer.

But how do you carry a laptop around with you? Also, the batteries run out in a couple of hours. Thatís no solution.

So I went back to the web site and found the answer. Itís a little MP3 player made by a company called Duo-Aria. It weighs just a few ounces and fits into my shirt pocket. I can slip on a pair of tiny earphones, and Iím in business wherever I spare time for reading. Even better, this device slips into my truckís cassette player. In fact, it looks like a cassette Ė only itís made of metal.

The audio company sold it to me at a big discount, with the agreement I would buy a couple of books a month. The deal reminded me of how companies used to sell you a stereo cheap if you would buy a certain number of records. Still, Iím a satisfied customer.

Face it. The digital revolution is speeding up our lives. Weíre stuck with chasing that Lexus, unless we want to vegetate under our metaphorical olive trees. But there are ways to make technology do what we want it to do Ė namely, enhance our lives.

For me, itís a small victory just to carve out a little more time for an old-fashioned pursuit that I love: reading.

Pass me those earphones, please.

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