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Are Audiobooks as Good for You as Reading? (time.com)
51 points by nikolasavic 6 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 64 comments

Reading is good, but re-reading is sublime. If you think of reading a book as something "good for you", the amount you gain on the second time around (in what you commit to memory, and what you notice in detail, esp for works of fiction) cannot be overstated. If you've never re-read a book I highly suggest picking up your favorite work of literature and giving it a go.

Now many people don't want to re-read a book because they could be reading a new book with that time, and many people say the world (even driving) is too distracting for full concentration on an audiobook. Let me propose that you try "re-reading" your favorite books by listening to them on audiobook. I have been doing this on my commute and it is 95% as good as giving the book a textual re-read.

You are already familiar with all of the material, so spacing out for a minute here and there is no big deal. I don't want to descend into wacky hyperbole, but I really super strongly recommend listening to audiobooks that you have already read. Try it!

I've had good success flipping between an audiobook while commuting, and reading the next chapters at home at night. My brain was able to seamlessly meld the two modes together.

This. So much this.

Specifically when reading fiction for pleasure, an audiobook can provide too much "color" not indented by the author. This, alone, makes it hard to recommend an audiobook as a solo source. However, having that second voice can force you to rethink your readings of specific situations. It can challenge you to really dig in when your understanding does line up with the reader's tone.

The first example that comes to mind is the English translation of "100 Years of Solitude" on Audible. All the voices have a comedian's intonation, especially Melquíades, who is supposed to be an Armenian gypsy, but instead comes across like a poor man's Count Dracula. That said, the temporal complexity of the novel is really clarified with a second voice, regardless how over the top it is.

Thank you. It seems that lately I've been reminded several times how simply re-reading articles can be a great memory improvement tool.

An additional re-reading tool I had forgotten about for a while is by clicking my history button to remind me what caught my fancy on the 1st round and probably will be worth re-reading again.

That, plus adding a star to certain articles.

Re-reading is actually not a good way to commit things to memory. It can be enjoyable, no doubt there, but for learning - such as focusing on non-fiction it uses more time than a good focused reading session over the first pass.

Re-read for enjoyment!

For learning/memory - You have to learn to encode what you want to learn into something you can remember. Some people use a "places" trick - where they remember a familiar house/place or commute to work and they can place things along this imaginary route for recollection. The idea is that we humans remember through images and association by evolutionary survival traits. You have to encode / chunk what you want to learn, you have to recall it and work on saving this to long-term memory by recollecting it at intervals that may be hours on day one, multiple hours day 2 and randomly as time goes on.

For the most part, re-read because you enjoy it, but don't convince yourself its the optimal way to improve your memory of what you have read :)

I've read Heart of Darkness about 3 times. I get something new and wonderful from it every time.

I've listened to Kenneth Brannagh's reading of it about 40 times, and get something new and wonderful from it every time.

Agreed! I'd go so far as to say that book not worth re-reading isn't worth reading once. Audiobooks let me spend more time consuming books than I would otherwise, and thus more time rereading favorites.

I'd go so far as to say that book not worth re-reading isn't worth reading once.

That could work well as an argument against reading newspapers.

Thoreau in Life Without Principle:

"We should treat our minds, that is, ourselves, as innocent and ingenuous children, whose guardians we are, and be careful what objects and what subjects we thrust on their attention. Read not the Times. Read the Eternities. Conventionalities are at length as bad as impurities. Even the facts of science may dust the mind by their dryness, unless they are in a sense effaced each morning, or rather rendered fertile by the dews of fresh and living truth. Knowledge does not come to us by details, but in flashes of light from heaven. Yes, every thought that passes through the mind helps to wear and tear it, and to deepen the ruts, which, as in the streets of Pompeii, evince how much it has been used. How many things there are concerning which we might well deliberate, whether we had better know them,—had better let their peddling-carts be driven, even at the slowest trot or walk, over that bridge of glorious span by which we trust to pass at last from the farthest brink of time to the nearest shore of eternity! Have we no culture, no refinement,—but skill only to live coarsely and serve the Devil?—to acquire a little worldly wealth, or fame, or liberty, and make a false show with it, as if we were all husk and shell, with no tender and living kernel to us?"

I can attest to this. I don't read that much (trying to change that), but I so badly wanted to re-read The Martian because it's just that good, and I must say I enjoyed it even more.

You should try rereading Gene Wolfe novels.

Different book every time.

I don't know if it's just me. I listen to a lot of podcasts and audio lectures because, well, what else am I going to do while I do housework? But audiobooks I find pretty much impossible to listen to without my mind wandering, even if it's a book I'm interested in.

I have to turn the speed up to not get lost in thought between words.

I listen to podcasts while I walk my dog even though it does require almost constant attention on my dogs actions. I find myself constantly trying to focus on what's being said and missing it often enough to have to rewind 15 seconds.

Perhaps it's that the more conversational nature of these media often makes it more acceptable to drift off for a minute.

It's possible what you're doing takes too much higher order thinking. Try it while driving or walking, instead of housework!

I think listening while driving is fairly easy, especially on a highway that requires very little thought, listening while working is not easy though.

Driving doesn't require higher order thinking?

I can't do anything else while I'm driving. I'm constantly looking at where people are; who's around me; and where I think other people are going.

Maybe it's just me but I couldn't possibly keep my concentration on a story being read to me while I drive.

Very different for me: unless I'm in a busy and unknown city, driving is pretty much autopilot for my brain.

I guess that is why so many people try to do things like texting while driving. Not saying that's a good thing, just that I think many people feel the same way and their minds want to occupy themselves with other, more interesting things.

In case you can't relate, I guess it would be similar to taking laundry out of a washing machine. It's hard to automate in the sense that you still have to operate that five-fingered hand and think about whether you grabbed something, whether something you're half-holding might fall between the basket and the washing machine (if you have such a gap, that's something to watch out for), so there is definitely some thought to it, but it's also definitely mind-numbing (imagine doing this half an hour without interruption). If this really took half an hour, I bet many people would try to use their free hand to text or scroll past news.

Driving is even worse -- which makes sense, because I think it's a more complex task than vacuuming or washing the dishes or folding laundry.

There is too much variance from reader to reader, narrator to narrator, and one type of material to another for surface-level studies to be helpful here.

People read and comprehend differently. For example, when reading it is very easy to skim, even when you don't intend to. In other words, reading too fast, such that you speed through parts you consider boring to get to parts you find more interesting. With an audio book, you cannot do this.

Also, distraction is not necessarily more of a problem in audio books than with printed material. Some people, myself included, can actually continue to read while their thoughts are in some other place. I often find myself reading one thing, while thinking of something else entirely, and having to go back and re-read what I just read. This is the mental equivalent of hitting the "30 second back" button on an audio book.

In general, I find myself absorbing audio books better than printed books, particularly when it comes to fiction. It forces me to take the book at an even pace, and thus I often come away with more detail and remember it better.

But the subject matter also makes a difference. I prefer audio books hands down for fiction, unless the narrator is Ben-Stein-boring or difficult to listen to. For non-fiction, audio books may or may not have the edge. For a non-technical subject such as history, audio books have the edge. For all math, unfamiliar science, or anything that requires a slower, more detailed examination of a subject, printed books win every time.

I only started listening to audiobooks when my commute grew to over an hour each way. They’re great to pass the time and I learn a lot from nonfiction, but I really wish I could dogear sound snippets.

I listen to audiobooks when I’m coding or on the bicycle. But most the books I listen to are kinda of “lesser qualility”. Like I listen to this book called “stealing fire”, it kinda of a new take on old business concepts. Had I actually sat down and read the book I would have been annoyed, that I wasted my time with it. But listening to it while doing something else made it seem okay. My retention was decent, there where times when I had to rewind. In the end, that’s fine because the book wasn’t that good.

I read real books on the kindle. Academic and interesting books that I want to completely get absorbed into.

It isn’t said enough but I think that the kindle paper white is one of the best e readers. It does hurt the eyes, it has very connection to the internet so u won’t get distracted. At the end of the day it just works great. (The OS/UX/UI is an little weird)

how can you focus on a book and write code? is it really so mechanical?

I was going to ask the same. I can listen while drawing, or playing games. but if I'm trying to do something like reading a document or writing a letter/email I find that one of the my "channels" just shuts off... So either I dont register the audio or my reading/writing goes to shit and i find myself stopping or re-reading the same line 15 times....

It depends what you're coding. Sometimes you're really just following an existing pattern, and doing essentially grunt-work.

If it's something new and requires some thought, then nooo lol you're not going to be able to take in any of that audio book, it's just going to be distracting.

writing tests?

Depends on what kind of tests you're writing, but even there I'd say it takes too much concentration to do both. At least if you don't want to miss 50% of the fragment you're listening to.

I can't even listen to music (except for instrumental music) while coding without getting distracted, let alone listen to a book.

I can listen to interviews while coding but not books. Seems coding needs a different part of the brain

audiobooks... while coding or on the bicycle???

One of those makes just no sense at all.

I know right? I find it difficult to focus on programming even if I listen to new music; I mostly just put on instrumental music or stuff I've listened to a lot so that it's subconsciously in the background. Audiobooks are completely unthinkable for me lol.

On the other hand I've tried listening to audiobooks while on a bicycle and the volume has to be so loud to overcome wind noise (or one has to rewind to replay) that it has to be damaging to hearing so I just listen to music where it doesn't matter if I miss a song or minutes of a song.

I’ve found that I could wear a bandanna under my helmet to cover my ears (and absorb sweat or keep warm, depending on the season), and significantly reduce the wind noise—specifically so I could listen to audiobooks more comfortably.

Thanks, I'll have to try that, usually only wear something like a balaclava when it's cold, nothing when it's warm.

That seems very risky in terms of reduced environmental awareness.

I think it totally depends on who the reader is. Currently listening to Ed Thorpe’s A Man for all Markets while I walk the dog each day. I wouldn’t say he’s the best speaker I’ve ever heard but just the fact that it’s him has me gripped.

Dan Carlin’s podcasts, I could listen to him all day.

Totally. A poor narrator can ruin the finest author's work. There are some narrators that are superb at characterisation and voicing and can pull you into a story completely. Then there are a lot in the middle and some that make a terrible job of it - yet never seem to fail to get repeat job offers.

Sadly I find Audible heavily over represent the poorest readers and quit my subscription over it years ago.

Author and narrator are equally important when I'm deciding whether to buy. The best narrators have me seeking out what they've narrated and see if there's anything else that appeals.

Audiobooks are much better for me than reading. If I read at the time I typically use audiobooks, I'd be dead and arrested. Seriously though, I spend non-negligible time per day driving around, and audiobooks are a godsend.

I use espeak to listen to text without having to rely on another human for reading it.

I find it's just another tool for getting information, one that's replaced skimming since it's less mental effort and higher retention. A lot of text doesn't need anything more to be understood, some I listen to multiple times, some I slow down to understand better, some I have to read to see in context of diagrams/maths/code and some I need to go through with pen and paper (or keyboard and computer).

An unexpected benefit for my own writing is that it highlights spelling errors and odd grammar much better than anything.

In general literary writing, like the article, is perfectly suited for listening to rather than reading. And at my current listening speed of ~750 wpm it frees up a lot of time.

I just picked up audiobooks with a lot of skepticism a few months back. I was surprised to find they are actually very useful!

I live in Bangalore where a 2-3 hr daily commute is quite normal and audiobooks are very easy to adapt to.

Similar to reading, I feel audiobooks have the same issues related to adoption ... whatsapp, facebook, HN, disturbance from people and email. These distractors are pretty much eliminated while driving .. so the car is really a good place to listen!

I finished Skin in Game, Option-B, Growth Mindset so far and actually quite happy with the results. I must confess, the level of distractions in today's world is unfathomable and my resilience is quite sad.


I cant tell what the podcast is about. If its something boring as 'course material' then the outcome is predictiable, its easy to get distracted and let your mind wander if you are listening to something boring.

But if you are listening to something captivating like the serial podcast then podcast is actually superior, audible cues by the narrator add another dimension to the experience.

For me - I prefer fiction audiobooks over non-fiction. Non-fiction often requires re-reading certain paragraphs or flicking between sections to refresh my memory on certain points. But with a good fiction book I can just relax and let the words wash over me and get lost in the story.

My favourite book on Audible is The Green Mile by Stephen King read by Frank Muller. It's an experience that can't be matched by a physical book. The narration is top notch and you feel really invested in the story.

Regardless of this. Reading is something I either do to learn something interesting or to relax. Depending on this I choose my medium for consumption.

Frankly ebooks (kindle) have my preference now for almost everything except books containing code or mathematics. Paper books are better to me in that domain.

If something is "good" for your specific use case will depend on many things. Convenience being a factor as well as personal preference.

For me, no, written books are better than audio books, but audio books are better when I'm in a situation where I can't be reading (commute in car, jogging, cooking, etc).

It makes sense that audiobooks have less comprehension because people tend to listen to audio books when they are engaged in other activities at the same time. With written books people are usually more focused.

> It makes sense that audiobooks have less comprehension...

And yet, interestingly, their study didn't find any significant difference in comprehension.

I love reading an actual book (iPad is a bit of a pain), but I’m in the car over an hour a day. So, I do like audiobooks and have an Audible subscription.

My enjoyment really depends on the narrator. An appropriate to the material narrator is a joy, but some are just awful. The authors reads 1776 and he is awesome. I do love the radio dramas with a full cast.

With audiobooks and podcasts, I don't feel anywhere near the same levels of retention compared with reading a book or watching a video. Even when wholly focused on the audio during a bus commute, my mind doesn't have the same levels of immersion when reading a book or news article.

Have you tried increasing the speed of the audio?

I find retention and understanding to be greatly increased when I don't get bored or distracted in between words and phrases.

Interesting, I've generally had the exact opposite occur for me, though it depends on narrator and context.

I typically listen while driving. Anything past 1.25x was an illusion of productivity trap. I could hear the words and understand the concepts, but there wasn't any time to digest what I'd heard.

Whatever captures most of your attention should be better for you in terms of comprehension and memorization. You can hardly read a book and pay attention to something else. You can walk and check your Instagram feed while listening to an audiobook.

Validity of this study might be disputable since I'm not as experienced scrutinizing scientific studies, but visual and auditory information is shown to have close corollary effect. Retention and comprehension is supposedly similar, so I agree with you. Engagement is definitely key.


That's not the question. It's whether audiobooks are as good for you as quietly sobbing wondering how many hours of your life you've given to the Sunol Grade.

For me it depends a lot on the reader. With some readers I get totally absorbed whereas with other readersi can't keep listening although the content may be very good.

I don't think people read because it's "good for them".

Oh, come on now. You don't think anyone ever read Virgil or Milton or the Bible or a dense history book more out of a desire for self-edification than from enjoyment? As Twain once said, "the classics are the books everyone wants to have read but nobody wants to read."

I don't think anyone (for acceptable tolerances of "anyone") reads those at all.

Are you being serious? You think nobody reads the Bible?

I've read all of them for what it's worth

Twain must have been a genius.

Maybe this was comment misinterpreted, Huckleberry Finn is one my favorite books. Next time I will just up the previous persons comment.

Honestly an author I've always meant to read more of. You never hear the end of him growing up in Connecticut.

One of my favorite bits from Bill Hicks, "whatcha readin' for?" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BwkdGr9JYmE

I like to expand my knowledge.

There is lack of decently read audiobooks in English at any price, and the situation changes little over time. Dictors are horrible and even blockbuster titles like "The Name of the Wind" have poor recordings.

On the other hand, I have access to a wealth of audiobooks in Russian, ranging from free-as-in-beer recordings from Vlad Kopp, Serguey Kirsanov and Igor Knyazev to literally hundreds of $2-4$ offers on litres.ru.

Interpreting audiobooks is an art. Some audiobooks are great performances that influence popular culture, like "Hard to be a god", starring Leonid Yarmolnik. Vlad Kopp gathers concert halls for his live reading performances. Igor Knyazev has a cult following.

If there is an example of copyright stifling culture, this is it. Russians had laxist copyright rules for a while, and the art of producing audiobooks flourished.

I was going to ask about this (English ones being badly read) - I tried a few out years ago, and...every non-English name, place, book, etc was grossly mispronounced. As if somehow no-one realized that was important. And I really would rather not hear something written by an English, French or German writer read in a US accent, mispronunciations or not.

I used to have a few cassette tapes with famous poets reading their own poems, they were amazing.

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