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In Your Ear: Audiobook Pros and Cons
Rising Sales Underscore Growing Love for the Format, but Research Highlights Tradeoffs
I love audiobooks. I have for years now, back when I listened on cassettes and CDs in my car. Nothing made my work commute more enjoyable than a lengthy novel unfolding in hourlong increments. Sometimes I would buy the physical book and bounce back and forth between the formats; I’d listen while driving, then pick up where I left off that night with my bedside copy. I still do that.
Access to Audible and Scribd on my phone in the years since have only amplified my use. And that seems true for millions more as well. More than half of American adults report having listened to an audiobook, according to a survey by the Audio Publishers Association and Edison Research—almost 140 million people in all. The majority access those books via their smartphone.
Naturally, we can spot this widespread experimentation and adoption in industry financials. Sales for audiobooks in the American market surged 10 percent in 2022, marking more than a decade of year-over-year, double-digit growth. Audiobook publishing now represents a $1.8 billion business in the U.S., projected to hit $19.7 billion globally by 2028. In his book on digital disruptions in publishing, Book Wars, John B. Thompson refers to this shift as “the new orality.”
One reason for the enthusiastic acceptance? Whereas most reading on paper and screens requires undivided focus while reclining, sitting, or standing in one’s living room, bathtub, doctor’s lobby, airplane seat, or the DMV, audiobooks permit a wider range of simultaneous activities.
I enjoy listening while walking, exercising, grocery shopping, organizing the pantry, and cooking. Others listen while folding laundry, gardening, doing dishes, washing the car, brushing their teeth, and accompanying the family dog on its evening business.1
Admittedly, I’ve also read plenty of print books while walking the streets, but my insurance agent flinches every time he contemplates my crossing the road with my nose in the folds. For the cost of our ears, audiobooks give us back our eyes, opening up a whole world of possible activities one can conduct while “reading.”
But there are tradeoffs worth considering.
The first is a direct and obvious side effect of the time-stacking benefit just mentioned. People are easily distracted while listening to audiobooks. And that’s no surprise, really, if we’re already doing something else while listening.
More than half of participants in a study of Norwegian readers reported slipping attention while listening. “The refrain was that it is easier to drop out of an audiobook and start thinking of something else,” write researchers Kari Spjeldnæs and Faltin Karlsen. I’ve had many times where I’ve lost focus while listening and have needed to roll back the book to pick up something I missed. In several instances, especially with nonfiction, I’ve listened to entire books again to ensure I got the principle takeaways.
“The audiobook,” say Spjeldnæs and Karlsen, “was experienced [by study participants] as less demanding and more suitable for literature that does not require much concentration, as listening is done ‘less attentively,’ which implies that audiobooks challenge reading concentration.” As a result, “Half of the informants who used audiobooks expressed how this format is most suitable for literature where missing parts of text or details such as names and dates are not a big issue.”
With that in mind, audiobooks would seem excellent for fiction, humor, and breezier narratives, including many memoirs. But we should consider treading warily when it comes to nonfiction books dealing with history, science, medicine, philosophy, theology, complex biography, and similarly challenging subject matter.
Another way of thinking about this: The more involved the argument and evidence, or the more extensive the storyline and characters, the more engaged the mind needs to be to properly understand what’s being said. Generally speaking, print and pixels are more conducive to that kind of engagement than audiobooks.
But distraction is only the beginning of our problems. Another study, this one by University of Chicago researchers Janet Geipel and Boaz Keysar, reveals a related but deeper challenge.
Psychologists, neuroscientists, and other specialists recognize multiple modes of thinking. One widely accepted set of frameworks flies under the banner of “dual process models,” each version of which attempts to describe the means whereby we reach hasty judgments on the one hand and considered opinions on the other.
Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman popularized these different modes by speaking of System 1 and System 2 thinking in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Whereas automatic, intuitive, even passionate thought characterizes System 1, System 2 reflects deliberate, analytic, rational engagement. Experts disagree on how these systems work together—for instance, simultaneously, sequentially, competitively—but they’re in general agreement on the idea itself.2
Geipel and Keysar figured that since the mental operations involved in these two modes are different—using separate parts of the brain with skills acquired by different means—we shouldn’t assume that processing audible information and written information would the same. The format itself could have a bearing on our thought process.
To test their assumption, they ran five experiments pitting intuitive System 1 thinking against more analytical System 2 thinking. They predicted that the answers of test subjects listening to given information would reflect more System 1 processing; likewise, more System 2 processing would show for the readers processing written information.
Sure enough: Reading with the eyes tended to engage more of the analytical and critical faculties necessary to notice errors and discrepancies. When people listened to information, they were less likely to catch inconsistencies and distortions compared to those processing the written information.
We are, say Geipel and Keysar, “more intuitive when we hear a problem while more analytic when we read it.”
5 Useful Strategies
Geipel and Keysar’s research was broadly about different styles and approaches to thinking and how format affects the outcome. Geipel thought one application might be news. “When I did the research, I realized that it might make a difference how I get my news,” she said.
But it was award-winning science writer David Robson who made the direct connection to audiobooks in his regular New Scientist column, provocatively titled for the Web as “How Listening to Audiobooks May Be Making Us More Gullible“ (the print edition carries that thought in the subtitle).
“A greater reliance on our intuitions could be a problem if we are consuming information that needs logical scrutiny,” he says. Largely processing with System 1 while walking the dog means our filters are less engaged for faulty reasoning, misused evidence, and other sorts of problems.
Take listening to a nonfiction polemical book, for example. We might mean we feel great about an author’s case, even though he’s made an insufficient one—insufficiencies we might have spotted had we been reading on page or screen (or were generally less distracted) in the first place.
“If I am tackling a book about science, I want to be sure I am fully engaged, not just nodding along to dubious arguments,” says Robson. His solution? Stick with print for nonfiction and leave novels for the ears.
I prefer listening to fiction over reading myself. But I also like nonfiction on audio. The time-stacking benefits already mentioned would be enough to justify my use. I bet that’s true for many of you as well. Same with the pure entertainment benefit of listening to fascinating ideas. But how can we ensure we’re not getting something merely facile at a moment we’re both easily distracted and likely not thinking with all our critical faculties?
Here are a few unscientifically verified personal practices employed by yours truly that might help you as well.
To remind, rewind. If I miss something or want to revisit an idea, I go back and listen again. Often. I’ll re-listen to quick bits, whole chapters, and entire books to ensure I’ve got the complete picture.
Slow it down. I read quickly on paper. And one great affordance of audiobook apps is the ability to control the speed of narration. But we process differently through the eyes and ears, and there are diminishing returns for speed-listening. I typically listen at 1.5 speed. Any faster and my comprehension begins to suffer. I once listened to a history at three-times speed; I could only remember a few names with a vague impression of the particular action.
Look it up. I almost always get a physical copy of any book I listen to on audio. Why? After a walk, I’ll reread portions that interested me, double check aspects of the argument, make notes, and so on—providing the best of both worlds.
Write what you hear. One reason I started Miller’s Book Review 📚 was to help me retain more of what I read. Writing summaries, capturing key insights, and jotting down relevant notes are all ways of engaging more deeply. That pays extra dividends with audiobooks.
Cultivate skepticism. Given likely disengagement of some of our critical faculties when listening to audiobooks, it probably helps to dial up our skepticism a bit in advance. A combination of “prove it to me” and looking over the argument in print after the fact, can help us avoid the gullibility David Robson warns about.
I could be wrong, but my guess is that simply being aware of the downsides can help us take better advantage of the upsides.
I don’t imagine I’ll give up audiobooks anytime soon; I’m a happy participant in the new orality. Audiobooks have been a growing part of my literary life for more than two decades now. But I mostly read to think, and I also want to ensure the format actually serves my desired end.
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Works for people, too. When the upscale Harpeth hotel opened in Franklin, Tennessee, a few years ago the overhead sound system in common areas like the lobby played pleasant music. But if you ventured into the public restrooms the music stopped and the audiobook of The Widow of the South, an acclaimed novel by local literary legend Robert Hicks, sadly since deceased, intoned overhead. A strange but pleasant choice.