Reading or Listening?

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Photo by Photorama -CC0 via Pixabay

A while back, when I asked some friends on Facebook about why men read less, on average, than women, one responded, “I just enjoy listening to books more than reading them these days.” I started to explore and found that this is true for many people. I had been living in a kind of bubble, thinking books were things that you read.

Audiobooks have been around for a long time. At one times, they were on cassette tapes. Later they were burned onto CDs. My first exposure to audiobooks was on a trip between Madison, Wisconsin and Columbus, Ohio listening with my driving friend to a James Patterson thriller, feeding another CD into the player every hour or so. Only problem was that we got home before we got to the end of the book.

This trend has accelerated in the era of podcasts and digital downloads. Sales revenues of audiobooks have doubled between 2009 and 2015, and the number of titles published increased from 4,600 to 35,500 during the same period (Source: Statista). By 2017 the latter total reached 79,000 titles (Source: Good E-Reader). Library Journal reports that 86 percent of libraries reported increases in audiobook circulation in 2016. Audible (Amazon’s audiobook company) has reported membership growth of 40% a year for its $14.95 per month subscription service.

What’s behind all this growth? A Quartz article proposes that it is a relentless drive to greater productivity. Audiobooks and podcasts allow us to fill the downtime, or even the time spent doing something else that doesn’t demand all of our attention–driving, exercising, or commuting on public transportation. While sometimes we may just listen to a book, in most cases we are listening while we are doing something else–multitasking. Some tasks, like riding public transportation don’t take a great deal of attention as long as we notice when its time to disembark and this might be one of the best ways to use the time, particularly if all of the other riders are in their own media bubbles.

The question could be asked of the impact on our lives of this relentless drive to be doing something “productive” and the effects of multitasking, which research has shown makes us less effective in whatever tasks we are engaging. I know that I cannot listen to much more than the news while driving, and if I try to listen to an interview or lecture while engaged in a task like writing, I can remember almost nothing of what I was listening to. Research suggests it isn’t just me, but if you think you can pull this off, I won’t argue.

I’m also intrigued by the kinds of books that are most popular in terms of audiobook sales. As you might expect, fiction and literature, followed by mystery, thriller and suspense, science fiction and fantasy, and romance top the list of sales. Business books, children’s books, and biography and memoir are much further down. I can particularly understand why children’s books aren’t as popular in this format. The artwork is as important as the words, something that cannot be reproduced in audio format. Serious forms of non-fiction (a good part of my reading) don’t make the list, and from what I’ve observed, few of these titles are even published in audiobook format. That makes total sense to me, because close reading, reviewing arguments, and footnotes are a part of such texts. (Source: Statista).

It is probably not fair for me to make comments about using audiobooks to read. I don’t do it, but I can see for the genres that are most popular, listening can make as much sense as reading. I did enjoy listening to a James Patterson audiobook with others in the car over 500 miles of basically the same scenery.

I do wonder about the feeling that we have to fill every second with some form of input. Are we so afraid to be left alone with our own thoughts? I wonder if we go through life thinking that many of the things we do aren’t worth our full attention, including our books. We think they are insufficiently productive unless accompanied by some other activity (which we also are judging insufficiently productive in and of itself).

The ubiquity of our digital devices tempts us to this. I couldn’t even sit through the intermission of Phantom when it was in town without pulling out my phone, answering a few emails, approving an expense report, and checking Twitter. And here I was sitting in this gorgeous old theater having just enjoyed some glorious music performed magnificently. I wonder if I were to get into audiobooks whether this will tempt me even further to surrender life in the real world to a digital one.

Mostly, I find myself wondering about this phenomenon and whether this represents a temporary fad (e-books spiked and then faded) or whether this is something different. I suspect like many things, it is double-edged, with upsides and downsides. As you can tell, I really have little experience with this stuff. I’d love to know what others think who listen to their books.

19 thoughts on “Reading or Listening?

  1. I agree. Some might be offended by certain points I suppose. In the past I tried audio books, and it did not work for me. It becomes like background noise. I can not concentrate and listen. However, I can concentrate and read with a tangible book. Once, my husband and I did listen to an audio book (non-fiction but an easier one) on a long car trip. Trapped in a car, we did listen. Like you, I mostly read non-fiction, and content that requires personal thought/concentration (close reading, reviewing arguments, etc) does not work well for audio. I can see how fiction would work out better for listening.

  2. I agree with your concerns about audio books, but let’s not forget that oral recitation preceded writing. Moreover, some of our greatest “books” were spoken before they were read. A skilled presenter adds much to a text through interpretation just as a musician lends his or her art to a musical text. I believe that a skilled reader can do a better job interpreting a literary text than I can. Really great audiobooks deserve our complete attention and belong in the same category as exquisite recorded music.

  3. I don’t have any objections to audio books, but I’ve never listened to one. I’d probably make use of them if I had vision issues, but for now, I prefer to read rather than listen. However, Joseph makes a good point in his comment–two good points, actually. That stories were told orally before they were written (as was “nonfiction,” history and practical instruction), and that a skilled presenter can make a story come alive.

  4. An excellent post. You do an excellent job of highlighting the dangers of audiobooks such as multi-tasking and filling up every available moment with “productive” activities. I personally love listening to audiobooks, primarily non-fiction. And if it weren’t for audiobooks, I would never take the time to engage in some great stories. Also, audiobooks have transformed mundane tasks such as laundry or cleaning into times I look forward to because I can listen to more of the story while doing these chores. Thus, while listening to a book may not be better than reading one, it surely is better than not engaging books at all.

  5. Bob,
    Great post, and good questions.
    A few thoughts:

    1. Jesus. In the synagogue, he takes up the scroll, but most of the time he’s quoting. The inference is just hanging there, isn’t it? His listeners mostly hear their Scriptures aurally. And as we have no record of his writing out his thoughts for his disciples (contrast that with Paul, if you’d like), we think everything we have in writing by and about him was first heard, then written. Why not hear it again?

    2. Multiple voices: we have read to our kids some quite long books, including the Lord of the Rings on a three-week road trip. But the actors who recorded the Narnia Chronicles are such superior readers where diverse voices matter, that we gladly enlisted their help for our young children. And up here in the northern states, I don’t know how a high schooler can responsibly, let alone enjoyably, read Twain’s Huck Finn without giving it a listen, too.

    3. Time. Between “killing time” and “redeeming the time” is not only a cultural divide (see Fischer, Albion’s Seed) but a range of good and bad habits, and temptations. It’s possible even for one person to err in every direction, if not all at the same time!
    a. Anyone who loves books ought to address the question, repeatedly and honestly, whether in choosing the company of the author we’re wisely choosing company over solitude, and choosing this company over some other company. As one who can tune out the world (including those who love me) while reading, whether on paper or on a screen, I don’t think earbuds present a different question there.
    b. Manual labor, whether morning ablutions or routine kitchen tasks, is prime time for conversation of whatever sort: with God, with family members, and if the medium is available with speakers not physically present. My wife, unlike me, would rarely choose a book over a live person — it’s not the only way she’s a better person than I am — but inviting a writer into her world when others aren’t there, and her hands already know how to do what they’re doing? That’s acceptable to her.

    4. Genre. It’s not just fiction that can be taken in: in the last few months, among other things, Barb has listened to 2/3 of Robinson’s Gilead trilogy, but also Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head (philosophy, broadly speaking) and is on her way through Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life (psychology, philosophy, again broadly speaking). My sons listened not just to contemporary page-turners while mowing lawns and pulling weeds, but to Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, the essays by Lewis collected in God in the Dock.

    • James, great comments. You and others have reminded me of the oral/aural dimension of hearing either texts or discourse in community, of which this is another form. I’m reminded of reading aloud in our family when our son was young, and how much people used to enjoy read alouds by Keith Hunt or Don Fields at Cedar.

      Your sons must have better attention capabilities than I. I could not listen to Dostoevsky while mowing the lawn, but I’m certainly open to allowing for difference here.

      You raise good questions about the choices we make in whatever book media elect and how in any of these, we can make good and bad choices about who we are keeping company with–a great reminder of the interpersonal interaction that is going on in reading.

      As I observed, I don’t have much experience with audiobooks personally, or with podcasts. I’d be curious if there were particular audiobooks (you mention the Narnia recordings) that you would single out as exceptional?

      • Podcasts
        Podcasts are too dependent on one’s particular interests to be broadly recommended, but also depend on tone and style. Over the years I’ve sampled a few, and even listened to some for a while, but I only have one long-term, consistent one. Russ Roberts’ EconTalk has been an almost weekly listen, so I’ve heard ~90% of the episodes since I started listening. You can see his listeners’ favorites (http://www.econtalk.org/archives/favorites/) from last year if you want to try a sample.
        Listening to podcasts on an iPhone (and I’d guess on other players, too, I just don’t know for sure), you can adjust the playback speed. I rarely do this, but a few times have bumped the speed up to 1-1/2x, and have heard of others speeding up more. Slowing down is also an option, and being able to rewind 15 seconds at a time with a single touch is often useful.

        Books
        Peter Dennis’ readings of the Pooh stories, and also Milne’s poems was exceptional. Jim Dale has read the Harry Potter series, as well as other books.
        Some books are read well by their authors, and that’s a two-fer, as you get to hear their voice and emphasis: Peterson’s 12 Rules, Jacobs’ The Narnian, Crawford’s World Beyond Your Head, White’s Charlotte’s Web (partly; George Plimpton reads part).
        Other books, especially classic works, have been recorded several times, and I’d sample each first (now that Amazon owns Audible, you can do that right at Amazon), then you can see what else your preferred readers have recorded. Blackstone Audio are among the original publishers, and are pretty good, but others do it well. My son Paul downloads freely from LibriVox, whose recordings are by volunteers, read as a labor of love. The range of quality there is even greater: on the long drive to Baylor for his freshman year, he got us listening to a G.K. Chesterton novel whose chapters were read by different readers, and there was one reader whose every sentence was delivered in the same singsong way it drove me so nuts, I had to call a halt to it.

  6. Hi Bob, your post hits on some things that I’ve been thinking about with regard to our “relentless drive to be productive” and need to “fill every second with some form of input.” While I don’t have to constantly check and respond to my smartphone, I sometimes feel myself in a “feeding frenzy” as a reader because in addition to reading books, because of the internet and social media, I read more blogs and feeds and follow threads of interest and it gets to be nuts! Some days I schedule to “unplug” and may feel a bit of anxiety, or the “depressed” feeling of being disconnected from constant stimuli. I haven’t done audiobooks but I’m considering it just to give my eyes a break; but also to hopefully enjoy listening to stories in the way that people listened to radio programs before television came on the scene.

    • Leslie, thanks for your comments. I also wonder whether we simply need time away from all forms of media (which are mediated communications) either to simply commune with ourselves, with whatever we believe (if we believe) is the ultimate, as well as important people in our lives.

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