Speeding through audiobooks, really?

Here’s a post that begins, provocatively:

Reading is dead.

The nature of books has evolved. Society and technology have changed. Forcibly, our approach to reading has taken on new forms to accommodate a different way of life.

Obviously that first line is just bait. The article isn’t even arguing this position. I’d say the author is cheating, sticking a line like that in the front of the article and then going off in a different direction. But click through if you wish, read the whole thing, and see if you agree.

But it’s the section on audiobooks that caught my eye. Here’s that entire section:

There is some skepticism behind audio, as some people feel that it doesn’t provide the same level of immersion as reading. A study notes that you can absorb information almost as well through audio as reading (whether they’re fully equal is another topic of debate). In some cases, the narrator’s tone can even help listeners to better understand the meaning behind texts.

The issue with audio, though, is that humans are prone to multi-tasking. If you’re typing up an email or cooking a meal while listening to the narrator, the message can become lost. Personally, I like using audiobooks when I’m less likely to be distracted, such as when waiting around or going for a walk.

Lately, speeding through audiobooks has become popular. Some people zip through a book at 2x, or sometimes even 3x the regular speed. While they claim that no information is lost, should we be approaching material this way?

A book is not simply an open box waiting to be checked off. Going through a book is an experience — one that requires absorbing the material, reflecting on it, and coming out having learned something new. Similar to how creative moments happen during quiet periods, our insights from books happen during periodic pauses.

I have problems with all of this, probably because I’m not interested in audiobooks as a medium by which to learn stuff, but as a medium by which to relieve the tedium of long drives, extended sessions of weeding, and walking the dogs. I don’t particularly care about absorbing information , even if I’m listening to nonfiction; and possibly a certain limit to the “immersion” and the “experience” is desirable if one is listening to a book while driving.

I thought I had a pretty good imagination, but it’s hard to imagine listening to an audiobook while also writing unrelated emails. Is there actual evidence that anybody actually does this on a routine basis? If you, yourself, routinely listen to audiobooks while also writing emails, watching television, holding a conversation with someone on an unrelated topic, reading the newspaper, or anything else remotely similar, please drop that into a comment. Failing to see a comment like that will be taken as evidence that this kind of multitasking, where people are simultaneously putting verbal attention into multiple unrelated tasks, does not actually occur.

I’d agree that “going through a book is an experience,” but not that this experience necessarily involves “learning something new.” I certainly wasn’t listening to the Echoes trilogy to learn something new, and offhand I would suggest that this may not be the primary motivation for anyone who is listening to fiction.

But the primary thing is … speeding through audiobooks? Really?

Are people really listening to audiobooks at two or three times the normal rate? That seems remarkable, and I can’t quite see how that would work. I’m trying to imagine it, for fiction or nonfiction, and frankly I just can’t see it. For fiction, surely that would ruin the experience, even if you don’t define “experience” as including “learning something new.” And for nonfiction, surely speed-listening would almost entirely prevent you from remembering the material?

Well, maybe not. I’m a pretty visual person and never got much out of lectures while I was a student. Maybe someone more oriented toward lectures would find speed-listening a viable option, even though I find the idea mind-bogglingly weird.

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11 thoughts on “Speeding through audiobooks, really?”

  1. I don’t use higher speeds for entertainment listening, but for lectures, definitely. Especially for some instructors whose natural… delivery… is… a… bit on the slow side. :-)

  2. I cannot do two different verbal tasks at once, like listening to someone speak and typing/writing something *else* down, though taking notes of what’s said in class works well for me. That’s two different actions with the same sense of the words though, even when I’m paraphrasing in my notes (as I usually do), not using the exact same words – it requires only one conscious train of thought.

    Combining one verbal, conscious task with one non-verbal mostly automated one like simple knitting , peeling potatoes or listening to music (i.e. mostly non-verbal light classical music, or music that’s so familiar I’m not tempted to start listening to the lyrics, as then it becomes a verbal task and will interfere) or something like that is fairly easy, if I can take a moment out of the verbal task when the non-verbal one demands my attention.
    This is why most audiobooks don’t combine well with driving a car for me – both tasks demand too much of my attention at the same time.

  3. Allan Shampine

    Interesting. I only listen to audio content while commuting to work, and it has been literally decades since I last listened to a novel narration . One of the reasons is that I am an extremely fast reader and I find the pace of narration to be excruciatingly slow. I didn’t know that it was technically possible to speed up playback but that actually makes me much more interested than I was before. I am now going to go enter into the Sharon Shinn audiobook drawing and maybe I’ll give 3x playbook a try!

  4. I listen to audio when I’m doing something with my hands, like knitting, cleaning up after pets, other sorts of tedious long-ish cleaning…long car drives, also.

    Not gardening – I hate earbuds and so listen indoors only, through speakers on a player.

  5. Hmm. I ease the tedium of long drives by singing along with Leonard Cohen CDs (and others, but especially Cohen). He was a gloomy cuss, but he wrote really excellent lyrics.

  6. I listen to audiobooks while doing housework or driving; I pause the story if the task I’m doing requires extra concentration, if I have to read something (like check a recipe) or if someone wants to talk to me. I certainly can’t do that kind of multi-tasking!

    The fastest playback speed offered by the library app I use is 2x. I don’t think I’ve ever used that, but it doesn’t surprise me that some people might, especially if they’re good at processing auditory info quickly and the narrator is a slower one. I usually stick to 1x — although I’m currently listening to an audiobook at 1.5x, because I’m not sure I’ll get the whole book finished before it’s due back otherwise. After a minute or two of listening, I don’t even notice that I’ve sped it up, it just sounds normal.

  7. I don’t listen to books at all, but I do occasionally listen to a lecture or podcast while doing housework or cooking. And then I’ll up the speed to 1.5x or 1.75x, depending on the original pace and also the density of the material. My husband listens to lectures and non-fictions books at an increased pace as well.

  8. I listen to audiobooks at 1.25x, occasionally at 1.35x if book club has picked something really really long.

    But at the last book club meeting, a woman commented offhandedly that she switches between reading on paper and “listening to the audiobook while she goes through her email.” So I guess she’s that person. I couldn’t possibly.

  9. I’m going to have to try listening to some audio thing at 1.5x speed just to see what it’s like. It’s really hard for me to imagine that working. Except, just maybe, for slower lectures, I guess, Mike.

    Things I was never, ever accused of as a lecturer: speaking too slowly.

    Lace, that’s remarkable and it makes me want to pin that woman down in a lab and find out if she can REALLY multitask that way or just thinks she can. But people do keep turning out to be startlingly variable in perception and handling information and all sorts of things, so maybe she really can!

  10. Part of the joy of Audiobooks for me is the narrator. I read way too fast, and I have discovered that I can really relish words and phrases, especially with a good narrator. I sped up the narration once, when I was liking an audiobook but wanting to kill the William Shatner style narrator. Since then I have learned to screen the sample and simply not get the audiobook if the narrator irritates me. (I’ve also had to stop myself from suggesting audiobook narration to random strangers when they have simply gorgeous speaking voices. The young male nurse taking care of a friend last week had the most resonant baritone with husky overtones – could have listened to him for hours!)

  11. Mary Anne, I was SO distressed when one of Terry Pratchett’s Sam Vimes books was narrated by the wrong person! I was so used to the other narrator who did most of the books; it was almost impossible to tolerate the voice of the replacement. Especially since he got Angua’s voice completely wrong. Ugh.

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