How I Started Listening to Audiobooks While Painting

It’s amazing how quickly an idea can spread though a community or subculture. One particularly aggressive meme that is working it’s way though the Toronto artist community is audio books. Listening to an audio book while working seems to be a rapidly growing trend.

I had always heard of audio books, but I never had the slightest bit of interest in them. In 2005, While talking to Nicholas Di Genova in his studio space in Toronto, he happened to mention that his latest audio book had arrived in the mail. He was a member of some sort of audio book club. Based on his description, it worked like Netflix, only with audio books instead of movies. He paid a monthly fee, and they sent him a book. When he returned it, they sent him the next one on the list. At the time, I was still blaring Nine Inch Nails and Skinny Puppy while working, and the idea of listening to a dry, boring audio book did not seem at all appealing. I was an expressionist painter who worked long hours, and I needed fast and interesting music to keep me going. I couldn’t imagine enjoying listening to someone read a book. But this conversation with Nik successfully planted a seed in the back of my mind. It just needed some time to sprout.


While I was living overseas, I didn’t watch much television (I still don’t watch much TV. As soon as it’s gone, I stop missing it and actually do things with my life). One thing I did become very addicted to were TED Talks; 20 minute videos where the world’s smartest people get together to talk about really interesting and inspiring things. I became an idea junkie. I had always been very curious about just about everything, but TED was able to present ideas in a way that just felt fresh, and they made me want to work harder to learn more. The long bus rides back and forth between work and home seemed like such a waste of valuable TED time. It didn’t have to be a talk, I just wanted some interesting ideas to occupy my mind for 20 minutes while I was on the bus.

“I know what will do the trick!” I told myself one afternoon, as I picked up an Audio book and loaded it on to my MP3 Player. By MP3 Player, I mean my Nintendo DS. I have one of those flash cards that lets me load up custom homebrew software, so I can use the NDS as a media player, ebook reader, personal organizer, and sketchpad. These cards are fantastic.

To be honest, my first audio book experience was not a great one. While it was a good book, I found it difficult to maintain interest and follow along with the reader. The 20 minute sessions here and there made it easy to lose track of what ideas were being discussed. But, I am a patient, determined kind of guy, and I stuck with it. By my third audio book, it had become much easier. Listening to long sessions, rather than 20 minute pieces made it easier to keep track of what was being discussed. Thanks to MP3 players, a session is not limited to 74 minutes like on a CD. I can put the entire series of recordings on one memory card and listen through nonstop. I can stop playback anytime, and when the player is turned back on, it starts playing exactly where I left off.

Over the last year and a half, I’ve listened to about 70 audio books, all non-fiction, mostly popular science books on physics, planets, or psychology, and some occasional philosophy. Any subject beginning with the letter ‘P’ seems to do the trick.

I’ll put on my headphones, fire up the NDS, and pick the latest audio book, then get to work. I find listening to something twice makes a big difference. On the first listen, I take in the book passively; I’m just listening and familiarizing myself with the material. The second time I listen, I take down notes and add them to the wall of crazy, where the ideas are compared with other ideas. Some ideas cancel each other out, some reinforce each other, and some inspire new ideas of my own, or inspire a new direction of inquiry, and suggest the next book I should listen to.

One side effect of all this re-reading and note taking is that I remember what was in each of these books. Many conversations stray onto territory that was covered by something I have read, and I can quote a passage or introduce an idea from one of these books. People are starting to think that I’m well read! (Does listening to audio books count as “reading”?)

Just Like Nik gave the audio book idea to me 5 years ago, (and likely shared it with many others as well), I’ve been spreading this audio book meme to other artists, and it seems to be taking off. I happened to run into an old professor of mine. One from my thesis panel. I mentioned to him that I had gotten into the habit of listening to audio books while I painted. He told me that in the 4 years since I had graduated, audio book usage among students has gone from non-existent to being a common occurrence.

The good idea of listening to good ideas is spreading.

Published by

Kyle Clements

Kyle Clements is a Toronto-based artist and nerd. During his thesis at the Ontario College of Art and Design, Kyle began working on his Urban Landscapes series, a body of work that aims to capture the energy and excitement of life in the fast-paced urban environment. After graduating from OCAD in 2006, Kyle spent a year living in Asia to gather source material and experience in a different kind or urban environment. His work is vibrant and colourful. Whether painting the harsh Northern landscape, or capturing the overwhelming buzz of life in the city, his acrylic paintings hover between representation and abstraction.

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