≡ Menu

“Speed listening” and Audiobooks

How to read a lot without even trying. Or understanding.

a narrow hallway filled to the brim with books, from floor to ceiling. Probably is a basement in a library. The books are piled haphazardly.

In 2015, The Atlantic reported on the phenomenon of speed listening in “entrepreneur circles” (i.e. goof balls looking for idiotic venture capital money). Speed listening is the act of experiencing the audio or dictated version of a book at a high rate of speed. Normal speech would be at a rate of 1x. Speed listening increases the rate to 1.25x, 1.5x or, for most listening apps, 2x. Yes, it makes the voice sound funny and the words go by comically fast, but the bad aural experience is simply a means to an ever-more-information-absorption end.

I read about 25-30 books every year. Some of these are paper books and some I listen to on audio (which yes, I also refer to as “reading.”) Unabridged versions and their latest copies are the only volumes I’ll take in. If I can’t find a full edition, I skip to the next book on my To-Be-Read pile and look for the full version at a later date. Often I will have both a copy of the hardcover book and a stream of the audiobook concurrently, and I switch back and forth between them.

When I was in a book club with other moms years ago, one woman took issue with my choice to listen to the month’s selection instead of reading the paperback copy. I had a small child at the time and the audiobook was super convenient, as I could listen leisurely as I pushed the stroller. I’d rewind and listen to passages again. I’d even slow down the rate of speed if I wanted to truly absorb the meaning of a paragraph, or to just bask in its beautiful construction. I didn’t think I was cheating anyone out of a reading or book club experience because I listened to the audiobook. Actually, I thought the audio performance was wonderful and added nuance. This woman argued that I did not have to “do as much work” in imagining the character’s voices or in sensing the tone of scenes. Perhaps she’s right. Perhaps listening to fiction audiobooks is more akin to seeing a play performed instead of reading the script. I didn’t feel like I missed anything, but I could tell the woman was more than a little miffed. (She may have thought of book club as more like homework-a-la-middle-school-Lit-class. I was just happy to be somewhere with adults discussing fiction!)

The Silicon Valley types in the 2015 Atlantic article were, on the whole, more interested in non-fiction. I also read (and, OK, LISTEN TO) many non-fiction books yearly. I’ve tried listening to them at accelerated rates, but my brain doesn’t really like it. A 1.25x speed is OK for a particularly slow talker but otherwise I keep the speed set at the default 1x rate. The unicorn-wannabes in San Fran may absorb info more quickly than I, but from what I’ve seen about learning, processing, comprehension, etc., I doubt it. For them, it seems the status of having-read-the-book is more important than having-learned-something-from-the-book.

Luckily, I have no-one to impress. No cutthroat water cooler chatter about the latest on Elon Musk. No latest GF Keto Brain Boost routine, or Raising Kids like A Start-Up (I almost wrote that book once). I read what I want, when I want. Another lucky thing: my non-fiction tastes usually coincide with a large cohort of technologists, scientists, and self-improvement junkies online. I get some traction for my blog and tweets by sharing my insights about the latest business books in my niche. (Indeed, almost every book I’ve reviewed on this site has elicited a comment or three from the author. I stopped reviewing business books and only tweet about them now. I guess I could go back to reviewing but I spend too much time reading to stop to write reviews!)

Granted, not all books are worthy audiobooks. Heck, some books are just bad in paper or audio form. I toss those back into the abyss after the first few chapters. But some great paper books are ruined by the voice artist. The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg is a great book with an absolutely TERRIBLE reader. But there are other great books with audio versions that are destination experiences in themselves (Jim Dale’s performance of all the Harry Potter books is a must-listen).

As a freelancer who works alone at home, I spend a lot of my day in total silence save for the click click click of my keyboard. When I am cooking, hiking, walking the dog, doing laundry, etc., I don’t want more silence. Audiobooks (and sometimes podcasts) are often my companions. Sometimes I’ll work through one book at a time. Right now I have about 3 different ones to choose from. I have small piles of paper books all over my house, too, waiting for a moment with a cup of tea.

As you can guess, I don’t watch that much TV. This isn’t a dis. Television storytelling has come a long way and there are many worthy shows. I watch some. But if I can’t stream it at will, I probably won’t see it. Books are more easily accessible, and, frankly, are more relevant to my two worlds of fiction and non-fiction writing.

I won’t be speeding listening, though, no matter how many books I want to read or how many cool TV shows tempt me away. I read to learn, to be entertained, to escape to other worlds, to stimulate my brain. Some things are better done at a regular pace.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay