Evangelizing Audiobooks

Growing up, I really didn’t like reading books. It didn’t help that I was conditioned to hate reading by being forced to do it in school all the time, but even now I’ll probably only read a couple books per year. Now don’t get me wrong, I read a lot, but the content is mostly in bite-sized chunks on websites.

I mostly stay away from written books because the process of consuming it is awful to me. Maybe it’s undiagnosed ADHD or something, but my mind constantly wanders where I then have to re-read the whole page. Then my arms get tired as I continuously fail to find a comfortable position. Lastly, the eye strain sets in as you drag your eyes line by line across pages of black on white text. Maybe I’m just terrible at it, but the whole process strikes me as slow and boring.

There has been research into overcoming some of these issues. Recognizing the saccadic nature of eyes, speed reading techniques have been developed. For example, having small enough horizontal line widths so your eyes don’t have to travel as far back upon reaching the right margin. Also, rather than dragging your eyes across the text, to instead utilize your peripheral vision and have your eyes “jump” along the lines and take in chunks at a time.

Then there have also been browser addons developed such as Spritzlet and Spreed where each word flashes at you at a designated WPM (words per minute), so you can completely eliminate the wasteful tracking required by normal reading. Unfortunately, the bottleneck then becomes comprehension. That is, it doesn’t matter if reading is inefficient because even if you were able to read any faster, you would still have to slow down because you aren’t able to process the information quickly enough.

Not only that, but the addons displace the normal sense of rhythm, tone, inflection, and flow of the original sentence-based format. The words continuously flashing at you is quite jarring, as if you’re being shouted at, and it’s difficult to maintain a steady pace if one part confuses you.

So yeah, I still haven’t found a good way of reading prolonged pieces of text without the aforementioned issues. But it doesn’t matter, because audiobooks are my one true love, and the rest of this post will be why I think they are underrated and how you can get the most out of them if you suffer from the same afflictions.

I knew about audiobooks for a while, but only recently has there been such a convergence of technological advances that have made them so extremely attractive, so only lately have I been able fully exploit them. Let me explain.

For one, they are now quite ubiquitous. Previously it was not the sort of thing you could entirely transition to, as very few books even had an audio version, and if they did it was probably of poor narrative and sound quality. Not only that but services like Audible and torrents either didn’t exist or were not nearly as pervasive.

Next, there’s the advent of mobile phones and earbuds, which allows you to listen to audiobooks anywhere you go. While commuting, doing chores, unsupervised night shifts at work, whatever. So now not only can you get an audio version of nearly any book in excellent sound quality, but you can listen to it wherever you are.

But what of the merits of audio listening versus textual reading? Dr. Willingham discusses this here and cites studies claiming high correlations of scores on listening and reading comprehension tests, so listening to an audiobook isn’t “cheating”.

At this point I could get a bit evo-psychy and say the audiobooks are the natural forms of receiving stories. Telling tales around a campfire probably predates written language by around a million years, so we are subsequently better equipped and evolved to process it. However, since evolutionary psychology can often be a bit suspect, I won’t bring up this point.

In addition, audiobooks also have several advantages over textual reading that I think most people don’t fully consider. It is extremely useful to be able to adjust the playback speed of media. Personally, I get easily distracted at normal playback speeds because the default narration speed is typically slow so I have worse comprehension at 1x speed than at 2x speed because my mind begins to wander from boredom with the former.

It used to be an issue where playing at fast forward would make the audio incomprehensible, but most modern media playback programs such as VLC have features that allow for the speedup of audio without making everyone sounds like chipmunks. They also prioritize keeping as much speech as possible, choosing instead to eliminate long pauses between words and sentence.

vlc

This is huge. A 300 page book is normally around eight hours when in the form of an audiobook. Listening to that at 2x speed allows you to complete it in four hours. I would not recommend going above 3x speed because there start to be diminishing returns. For example, going from 1x to 2x speed makes it four hours shorter, whereas going from 2x to 3x speed only makes it 1.33 hours shorter. Not only that, but 3x speed is almost unintelligible unless you’re intensely focusing. My recommendation is to stay between the range of 1.5x to 2.5x depending on the original speed of the narration, your focus levels, and the relative difficulty of the text.

A common objection to such practices is that surely there is a loss of comprehension when the reading speed is increased so dramatically. However, this doesn’t seem to necessarily be the case. The average speaking speed is around 105 words per minute, but even when that is doubled there doesn’t seem to be any loss in comprehension. Indeed, there is a recent trend in “speed-listening” and many are jumping on the wagon. There are even specialized apps being developed for the practice.

Somewhere along the line I realized that these same strategies would apply just as well to podcasts and YouTube videos, and I highly recommend this as well. For example, sometimes you’ll be surfing the web and see a somewhat interesting documentary or some other type of video posted, but it’s an hour long. Previously I would say, “well, that looks interesting but I don’t really feel like devoting an hour to watching it, so I’ll just skip it or maybe bookmark it and watch it never.” Now I think, “one hour is only 20 minutes at 2.5x speed. I’ll just watch it now. 20 minutes is less than an episode of Seinfeld. That’s easy.”

Speaking of 2.5x speed, this addon has been amazing. This sticks a video speed controller at the top left of all HTML5 players, which are most players on the internet nowadays. So that means YouTube videos, Twitch VODs, TV streaming websites, whatever. Even obscure video players that I don’t think would work usually work. I highly recommend it.

Many people I tell this to often express incredulity over listening to a book or podcast so quickly. Believe me, it is not as difficult as it sounds. The original narration is often deliberately slow, and the modern playback features like time stretching audio and pitch correction make sped up versions quite understandable. As long as you pay attention, you can do it.

The next objection is normally along the lines of “shouldn’t reading be enjoyable? Why are you just trying to get it over with as quickly as possible?” To this I present a reductio ad absurdum-if enjoyment is merely a factor of time spent reading, why don’t you deliberately read twice or even four times as slow? Indeed, as long as you can fully comprehend what is being said, there’s no reason why you should take any longer than necessary to perform a task, especially when there are so many great books and podcasts to listen to.

Likewise, even if I did get less enjoyment out of it, I still consider that better than the alternative of no enjoyment. There is limited time in the day and these practices are the determining factor in whether or not a book gets read at all. Lastly, I refer to a previous point where my mind starts to wander and my comprehension is lowered when the speed is too low, for the information is not coming in quickly enough to properly stimulate me and I get bored.

Another question I often get is if you intend to intensely focus on an audiobook while at home, what do you look at? Do you just stare at a wall? I’ve thought about this a bit, and I think I’ve found a good answer. Sometimes I use twitch.tv and find some mindless stream like a first person shooter. Try not to watch any sort of game with complexity or that which requires strategic thinking. You want to avoid anything that will pull you out of concentrating on the story. Another alternative that I think is decent are just scenic train rides. Here’s one that is around six hours total.

Changing gears, I’d like to return to several of the advantages audiobooks have to textual reading that not a lot of people recognize. For one, there is additional concurrent information presented when listening to audiobooks.

  • Pronunciations of unfamiliar words and names allow you to skip either looking it up or fudging it yourself.
  • Voices give you leniency in how well you have to know the names of characters, for you can recognize their voices instead of having to know their names.
  • Inflections allow you to recognize questions or exclamations before getting to the end of the sentence and realizing there was a relevant punctuation mark and having to re-read the sentence.
  • Similarly, instead of having to wait until the end of the sentence to see “said John” to realize the proper context in which to realize the meaning of the sentence, you can know ahead of time based on voice.
  • The elimination of having to read in all the aforementioned. No longer having to waste time reading “said John”. Rather, you just hear John. Similarly, punctuation need not be deciphered as it instead transformed in to the proper spoken sentence rhythm.

If you want to get even more fancy, they now have things like GraphicAudio, where even more of the text is made audible. For example, instead of the narrator saying “They closed the door and began to walk down the cobblestone path while it lightly rained”, there will be a sound of a door closing and footsteps on cobblestone as it drizzles in the background. The ambiance is incredibly immersive and it eliminates the need to vocalize environmental effects and audible actions.

The stories even sometimes go even further than this. For example, in the Stormlight Archive during the battle scenes (example here), there will be battle music, clanging of swords and shields, fighting in the distance, etc.

Anyways, all this stuff has really changed my life. I’m reading and learning so much more than I used to and can actually consume books at a reasonable rate now. I’ve also been on the lookout for some great podcasts and audiobooks, so if you have any in mind let me know. If you want any recommendations from me, for audiobooks I’ve really liked the aforementioned Stormlight Archive series along with Richard Mathews’ narration of The Count of Monte Cristo. As for podcasts, Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History is pretty captivating and Joe Rogan often has long discussions with some interesting guests on his YouTube channel.

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