Reading is Better than Listening: A Personal Take on Audiobooks

I loved the experience of ‘eyes-free’ reading, but my extensive preference for nonfiction left me benefited only a little.

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I love experimenting with various ‘genres’ of books. But quite recently, my experiments have expanded to the ‘formats’ of the books. Audiobooks piqued my interest. Thanks to my one-stop shopping destination Amazon and its audiobook subsidiary, Audible.

Back in October 2020, I first listened to a clip of an audiobook on Audible. The voice and the storytelling were so enticing that I thought to give audiobooks a try. But before picking up a subscription, I did some research about audiobooks. I feel it’s wise to do some homework before investing time and money into any habit or activity.

Audiobooks were created for blind people in the United States, back in the 1930s. Gradually, the audio format of books gained popularity amongst the common populace. Cassettes, CDs, and finally, audiobooks stored portable devices came to the market. Flashforward to 2021, with just a click or a tap, I download an entire taped book on my laptop or phone. Easy-peasy, right!

For half-a-decade, I’ve been reading eBooks only, and I strongly recommend the format over traditional paperbacks. After all these 5 years, I was on the verge of trying out a new form of book content, audiobooks. “Audible, I’m all ears”, I thought. Spotify and YouTube also have got a few worth listening to but the number is meagerly small.

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After listening to a couple of them, I had a bittersweet feeling. I gained some perks and had to sacrifice some, rendering an inextricable trade-off. I loved the experience of ‘eyes-free’ reading but my extensive preference for nonfiction left me benefitted only a little. Let me explain what were those bitter and sweet aspects that came to my realization.

Firstly, audiobooks don’t let me annotate. Yeah, by no means, there is a possibility that I can pick up a stylus and mark something on ‘soft’ pages. Can’t write a counterargument or jot down some instant thoughts. ‘The Return of Sherlock Holmes’ doesn’t need annotation but for the ‘Merchants of Doubts’, interacting with the text is essential.

Secondly, rewinding is frustrating. When I’m reading an eBook, if I can’t construe a paragraph, I peruse it repetitively until I can understand the context or imbibe the concept. If chapter 4 establishes a link with chapter 2, I can revisit it anytime. But rewinding the audio repetitively or moving back-and-forth is extremely arduous. Too much maneuver!

Thirdly, the mind gets out of my head and flies like a bird. Well, the problem of mind-wandering has got some scientific evidence on its back. A psychological study reveals that reading a book loudly keeps the mind inadvertently more focused compared to listening to the content. Since I read aloud to keep myself laser-focused on the text, listening for a long time couldn’t keep the ‘mind-bird’ in the ‘focus-cage’.

Lastly, audiobooks don’t let me read. This sounds dummy and counterintuitive, right! Well, reading a text induces an ineffable joy that was missing in listening. The Athelas or Georgia fonts on ePub books keep my eyes glued but my ears couldn’t derive the same feeling from the voices of a slew of those tapes.

But there was a silver lining too. That’s the only sweet. Listening through my ears spared my eyes which could gaze at anything or do any work. That’s why audiobooks work pretty well for those people who don’t get time to read. Plug earphones or headphones in, tap on ‘play’, and run errands or do chores. Cool!

But one advantage fell too short before several disadvantages. Even these issues are quite prominent for people who are long-time readers of digital or physical texts. A discussion I found on Reddit also talks about issues of listening to audiobooks and how many people just fail to ‘get along’.

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So, the next question is, how audiobooks are competing with other formats? Well, the audiobook industry ain’t only thriving, its growth in the last couple of decades has outweighed the eBook and paperback sales. Around 67 million Americans now listen to at least one audiobook a year. In 2016, people bought audiobooks worth $2.1 billion whereas $1.8 billion hardcover copies were sold in retail. In a nutshell, audiobooks are giving a tough competition to the other two forms. Publishing houses now have their own audiobook sections that are dedicated to creating audio content with bona fide voices, appropriate tempo, and engaging intonation.

Digging deeper, I learned about a pair of factors that effectuate the growth of this industry. On one hand, audiobooks don’t engage the eyes for reading. Our auditory canals read, not our retinal cells. People, listening to a book, can do other chores or mundane activities that don’t require their cognitive focus. On the other hand, adjusting the tempo can also boost reading speed or listening speed per se. That helps in checking off all the books a person has got on their wish list.

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Unfortunately, neither of these factors resonates with me. For a few reasons, my arguments are certainly biased against audiobooks. If anyone can afford the time to read, then book audios should be avoided, especially when non-fiction reads are concerned.

Firstly, doing multitask means engaging the brain in different and often, unrelated tasks. Human brains are a terrible multitasker. Let’s face it. A few people can do efficient multitasking but the majority can’t. Research shows that multitasking isn’t healthy for our brains and people who do more than two tasks at any moment, lose their multitasking capability over time. So, maybe only listening to the books and keeping the rest of the body idle is the most efficacious and healthy thing to do. Since that rarely happens, books are absorbed less and skimmed more. This brings me to the second point.

Secondly, more is less. Reading 30 books in a year and primarily skimming through-shouldn’t be the new year’s resolutions. Reading slowly has its own benefits. More information processing, better absorption, coherent understanding-these are all nontrivial benefits that anyone can derive from a quality book. It’s better to peruse one eBook a month instead of three audiobooks. Less is bound to be more.

Thirdly, whispering a book to someone’s ear is an art and voice is the artist here. A proportion of audiobooks on Audible libraries also fail to keep listeners engaged. Pitch of voice and speed of reading matter a lot. We can’t resonate with every song. Similarly, every voice doesn’t feel good.

Apart from that, I’ve found dedicated podcast channels that upload 4, 5, or even 11 hours’ worth of audiobooks each week on Spotify. How? All of them are text-to-speech (TTS) reads. Automated robotic voice treats headlines or sub-headlines as body text. Impoverished of voice intonation, suddenly the human voice appears invaluable for an audiobook.

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As I’m almost done with rambling about the potential pitfalls of listening to audiobooks, would I stop listening to taped books? Indeed, that would depend. I mostly read nonfiction, productivity, and science books. Annotating, repetitive reading, making notes are essential to grasp the core ideas of these books. eBooks reign in my iPad storage hitherto.

If I’m listening to ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’, it’s fine if I miss a few lines. The flow won’t get lost. But if I’m listening to ‘Digital Minimalism’ or ‘The Alchemy of Us’ or ‘Biocentrism’, a momentary distraction would certainly interrupt my web of thoughts.

Now, let’s get back to the title. Is reading better than listening? Without any doubt, yes. Before papyrus scrolls were perceived, information and knowledge used to be passed across generations by means of listening. But getting back to that era isn’t easy while living in this hyperconnected and hyperproductive world. Our attention is too fragile and the mind often struggles to stay undistracted.

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In essence, my recommendation would be to choose wisely. Understandably, from sexagenarians to octogenarians, vision is an unavoidable issue in most cases. Audiobooks can genuinely replace hardcovers for them. But a healthy millennial, with a clear vision, should minimize their audiobook consumption and maximize their reading habits.

Fiction books, without intricate details, are ideal for listening. Syncing the imagination with the audio and watching an invisible movie is always fun. Non-fiction books, like productivity and science stuff, are always better devoured through eBooks or hardcovers. Juggle with facts, highlight anecdotes, and learn more!

Chronicling personal experiences and thoughts on Medium | Aspiring chemist by day | Amateur science writer by night | Say Hi on my blog: bit.ly/sumonwrites

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