April 10th, 2017

Audio books and me

In this thread from Saturday, quite a few people rhapsodized on how much they like audio books, and they recommended them to me. I’ve written before about my problems with auditory learning (see this and this), but now I’d like to talk (correction: write) about my problems with recorded books.

Years ago when my arm injuries were at their peak, I couldn’t even hold a book or turn the pages for very long. That was before the days of Kindle, and I experimented with every book-holding gadget that was made at the time. None of them worked for me, because they all involved too much arm labor. At the time, even a few minutes was too much.

But I missed my books terribly. After all, when your activities are as markedly limited as mine were then, books can become more important than ever for the already-bookish. So I went to what you’d think would be the natural alternative, Books on Tape (as it was quaintly called at the time).

It was a total bust for me. Within minutes of beginning to listen, my mind would go on walkabout. Daydreaming, wandering, cogitating, woolgathering—the drift would inevitably happen. Later, I’d find myself coming to without a clue as to where I’d left off.

When you stop reading a book you know you’re doing it, and you can place a bookmark there to note the exact spot to come back to when you resume reading. No such luck in finding where you’re stopped listening to an audio book. I had no idea where I’d stopped concentrating; no idea where I’d begun to drift, and anyway it wouldn’t really help to find the spot because I’ve just do it again in fairly short order, even though I’d resolve not to.

It didn’t seem to matter what the subject was. Fiction or non, biography or novel, all were merely a jumping-off point for me when I listened to them. When I read a book I usually am sharp and focused, as well as quick. But listening seemed to bring out some stubborn resistant part of me, or perhaps it was a real inability to process information that way or at least to attend to it.

That had been a big problem for me in my school days—not a learning problem, because I was an excellent student, and almost all the information could also be accessed in books—but an attention problem. I would sit at my desk, uncomfortable and bored, eyes and mind glazing over at the drone drone drone of most of my teachers. It was particularly acute during reading time, when the teacher would often call on the slowest of readers to read aloud.

I was embarrassed for them as they slowly and stumblingly read the passage in our little readers (in which the stories were already stupifyingly dull). I had sympathy for the slow readers, at least in the abstract. But it set my teeth on edge to have to listen as their humiliation and suffering went on and on and on. Later, in college, I was puzzled by lecture halls. Why should I have to sit there for an hour listening to a lecture when I could have read it in a few minutes if the text had been given me?

There’s a clue there to some of the problem: reading a text aloud takes longer than just reading it to oneself, and I apparently wasn’t very patient with that process. I don’t think that’s the whole explanation (which remains a mystery), but it may be part of it.

I was one of those people who sat at the very back of the room during lectures, swinging my leg restlessly, doodling and smoking.

There were only a few classes in college that I liked. They were almost always small, and involved discussions rather than lectures—such as the one on poetry, where the professor and I would schmooze about Robert Frost while the rest of the class yawned.

So audio books are not a good match for me. The only one I’ve ever listened to successfully was someone who read James Herriot’s short stories with zest, verve, and appropriate accents. Those tales are already remarkably entertaining, though, and they’re not long. The person reading them on that particular recording was able to turn them into amusing little radio plays, and my attention never wavered. But that was a rare phenomenon for me in the world of book listening.

So although I see the point of audio books in terms of practicality and ease, for me it just doesn’t seem to work. It’s an odd quirk of mine, since I have no problem listening to normal speech in the real world. If you talk to me, I’ll listen intently. I might even remember what you said longer than another listener might remember it. I’ll pick up on nuances of expression. I usually can tell a lot about people from their speech and tone, even the way they answer the phone—sad, tired, half-asleep, lying, telling the truth. But lectures and books seem to erect a wall between me and the speaker, the talk turns into a drone, and before I know it my mind is elsewhere.

And then there’s my problem with cartoons

22 Responses to “Audio books and me”

  1. Margaret Ball Says:

    Audiobooks actually are good for one thing. I use them to put myself to sleep.

  2. Mac Says:

    That school experience sounds just like mine. It would not be fair for me to blame my laziness and inability to concentrate on my early school years, but let’s say those faults were at times facilitated by school.

    I have something of the same problem with audiobooks if the material is very demanding at all. But I really enjoy fiction that’s relatively undemanding on a long drive (hours): mysteries and such, where the prose is straightforward and the plot has a good bit of what’s-going-to-happen pull. I don’t think I’ve ever even tried listening to an audiobook while sitting still.

  3. M J R Says:

    I, too, absorb (and presumably learn in the process) visually. Listening just doesn’t work for me.

    neo asks, “why should I have to sit there for an hour listening to a lecture when I could have read it in a few minutes if the text had been given me?”

    I was an assiduous note-taker in my classes in college and beyond, because the professor’s exams invariably reflected the way the professor approached the subject matter, and I figured out at some point that for the best results, I needed to mimic his/her approach and thought process.

    Consequently, I did little to zero learning in the class: I was busy noting down in writing whatever the professor said as well as chalked on the board, in the interest of getting it digested later, later normally being when working assigned problems (I was and am a math geek) or boning up for the inevitable exam.

    What a blankety-blank waste! I actually preferred those professors who basically regurgitated the assigned text(s), because then there was no need for note-taking. But whether I absorbed that much from the professor’s droning, even when s/he operated in regurgitation mode, is pretty questionable.

  4. Vanderleun Says:

    If only you could learn to focus, Neo. If only…

  5. AesopFan Says:

    This and the collateral linked post resonate with me.
    “I would sit at my desk, uncomfortable and bored, eyes and mind glazing over at the drone drone drone of most of my teachers. It was particularly acute during reading time, when the teacher would often call on the slowest of readers to read aloud.”

    I still remember getting into trouble as a “bad reader” in school, because while the slow ones were stumbling through their sentences, I had finished the book and forgotten where we were.

    I can get in the flow of anything requiring active concentration, but I have to take notes in an audio situation. I can’t even iron and watch a movie at the same time without burning the clothes or missing a scene. In school, I could not study and listen to music like my friends: same scenario.

    As a more (ahem) mature listener, I have to take notes in church during the sermon, or I end up just taking a nap. I also found I couldn’t follow along in the scriptures, because while the teacher was explaining, I was reading the rest of the chapter.

  6. Yankee Says:

    That’s really a shame, since you end up missing out on a lot, with that particular quirk of yours. Being able to access good audiobooks on my computer has added a lot to my quality of life. Some favorites have included Patrick O’Brian’s “Aubrey & Maturin” series of novels, as narrated by British stage actor Patrick Tull. I’ve also come across some great lectures on history.

    Besides audiobooks, there are many podcasts out there that are no more than an hour long. Some of these deal with current events, such as at ricochet.com, and others are of general cultural interest, like at nerdist.com. Many comedians also do podcasts, like Adam Carolla and others.

    On a related note, does this quirk apply to the longer segments of some NPR programs? Or for talk radio, like Howie Carr and others?

  7. Paul in Boston Says:

    I’m not a general fan of audio books since I tend to tune out like you, however there has been one exception. When our boys were young I’d get them for the long drive to visit Grand Ma and Grand Pa. We did the complete Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Indian in the Cupboard, Dune, and a bunch of others. It was great way to pass the time when car games gave out.

  8. Gringo Says:

    I have never listened to an audio book for longer than 3 minutes. If I am doing something that precludes me from reading, I would rather listen to music. As you also point out, it is faster to read than to listen- which means that reading will trump audio for me.

    I have listened to some Strategy Page podcasts without zoning out, so Neo’s problem is not mine. I prefer reading text of a podcast, as it is faster.

    I prefer a lecture that makes note-taking easy. STEM professors nearly always write on the blackboard what you need. I have not signed up for some STEM classes where the teacher didn’t use the blackboard but sped on talking. Some of them had notes on overhead projector transparencies or on slides, but changed them too fast.

    I recall one Math teacher who finished the lecture 15 minutes early for questions. He had put minimal stuff on the blackboard- or VERY fast slides- I don’t remember. My reaction: if you had slowed down so that students had time to take down notes, there would be no need for a question and answer period. I didn’t sign up for his class.

    I usually didn’t understand the STEM lecture if I hadn’t gone over the appropriate textbook material beforehand. It takes time for STEM stuff to sink in. Questions to me are at this point irrelevant- I need to go over the material several times until I am comfortable with it. At least that is how STEM courses were for me.

  9. neo-neocon Says:


    I don’t listen to much radio. I don’t like talk shows, either, although I will listen to Howie Carr if I like the guest and the topic—but that’s because Carr is genuinely funny. I don’t zone out as much when someone is humorous.

    I used to have terrible trouble with sermons, too. Political speeches are a problem, or really just about any sort of speeches.

  10. Esther Says:

    Huge, huge, huge fan of audiobooks here. I’ve listened to thousands of books. If there was a competition for most books listened to since 1990, I might win:-)

    To my ear, lousy writing is magnified. I remember more plot and more facts when I listen, which seems counterintuitive because I’m visual.

    Also, weirdly, Dickens, Thackeray and the rest of the Victorians are fresh and awesome out loud. Reading the books manually otoh, painful snooze fest.

    Though I only enjoy audiobooks when I do nonverbal type work, especially focused handwork requiring spacing out/patience; or to fall asleep, which is not my best thing. Not for driving, unlike most people, because I’m not a natural driver and have to concentrate.

    Lots of people don’t like audiobooks, totally puzzles me.

  11. Chester Draws Says:

    Not liking audio books is hardly a quirk. Lots of us would much rather read.

    We’re not “missing out” because we can read the books and have time over. We can also scan back to check bits, skip bits we don’t like and look things up if we want some detail.

  12. miklos000rosza Says:

    Audiobooks interpose a performer between the written word and myself as receiver and interpreter of the words on the page. It’s a completely different experience. You’re no longer a reader, possessing some agency, exerting your attention. You no longer have the ability to read the same word twice, or the same sentence, or briefly pause to reflect on and contemplate what you have read.

  13. Philu Says:

    I’ve always been intensely curious and remember reading science books as a favorite pastime when five or six years old. At eighty-one, I’m still just as curious, but find myself getting sleepy and failing to concentrating on what I’m reading. I haven’t tried audio, but perhaps that would be a help. On the other hand, it might put me to sleep, and I’m not a napper.

  14. zat Says:

    neo: “When you stop reading a book you know you’re doing it”

    I remember a Laurel&Hardy movie in which Oliver gets a letter and Stan reads it to him. Oliver is shocked about the content. Stan asks: “What’s the matter?” Oliver: “You just read it to me!” Stan: “Yes, but I didn’t listen…”.

    That’s funny but actually not so far fetched. What we call reading is actually two processes combined. First, the translation of visual signs into sound patterns. Second, the translation of sound patterns into meaning. In Chinese it is only one process, visual signs are directly translated into meaning. And with numbers it’s the same.

    Observing children this is quite obvious because they start reading aloud, and not always do they understand what they are reading.
    The more you get used to reading the more the process is internalised. You hear kind of an inner voice when you read.

    But is this really all? As trained readers we don’t read letters, instead we recognize whole words immediately. The more we do this the less we hear an inner voice. We skip the first process and reading becomes almost as fast and direct as reading Chinese. This interesting experiment with scrambled words is kind of a proof.

    And that’s still not all. Speed reading teaches us not only to recognize words but larger parts of the sentence or to recognize the significant part of a sentence. Not everyone can do this, you have to have the talent. I wonder if you, neo, ever tried speed reading, you seem to be the right type of reader.

    There’s a backdrop, of course. The faster you read the more you read what you expect, not what’s really written. Speed reading only makes sense with texts in easy language. Otherwise it’s more guessing than reading.

    (We rely so much on Google search. Google’s search mechanism could be described as speed finding. It doesn’t find everything we are looking for, instead it uses a lot of cryptic assumptions to show what we might have looked for – and some ads of course. With Google search we are speed reading that huge convoluted text which is called “the internet”.)

  15. Mineral Says:

    Neo notes that reading is faster than listening and implies that this might have something to do with a wandering mind when listening to something being read outloud as opposed to reading it oneself.

    I don’t know if this might make a difference for Neo, but many audiobook listening devices have a setting that speeds up the audio (while maintaining the tone so as to avoid squeaky voice effects). I use if for non-fiction reading where the content is not so dense as to require a lot of concentration on the material. For fiction I usually prefer to keep it at the originally read speed because – when the narrator is doing a good job – the reading performance is an essential part of the experience. But it certainly would work for fiction too. It’s pretty easy to get used to.

  16. skeptic Says:

    I think audio books are totally different from text books (I don’t say print books because I am totally an ebook person). Audio books are akin to radio programs. With a good narrator they are great entertainment. I recently heard a great narrator reading Tom Sawyer. The man did an outstanding job on all the southern accents as I imagine they were at the time and with Mark Twain’s humorous asides.

  17. richardaubrey Says:

    The Playaway device has one book in it and you provide the earphones and battery. I guess it’s mostly a library thing.
    As Mineral says, it has three speeds. One is normal conversation, one is sort of like radio newsreader tempo, and one is really fast.
    Thing is, we can, speaking metaphorically, listen faster than most people talk, which leaves microinstants in which distractions take over.
    Simon Winchester did a lengthy history of the Oxford English Dictionary and recorded it. Strangely, it was interesting.
    Listening to one of Forsyth’s shorts while driving, we were so fascinated, we missed an exit and ended up in Ohio farm country.
    Others were so bad the awfulness was fascinating. Don’t suppose it would have been a better read.

  18. Janetoo Says:

    I love the John LeCarre novels narrated by Michael Jayston. But, I understand about mind wandering issues. Oddly, I have to be doing something busy to really comprehend. I can’t just sit and listen. When I sit and listen, my mind also wanders and I fall asleep. I have to be busy doing something physical. When I sit, I prefer to read a real book.

  19. Mac Says:

    I listened to several of the Aubrey-Maturin books that were mentioned above, read I assume by the same actor. They were great, and in that case the listening experience was undoubtedly better than reading would have been, because the voices and the nautical terminology were made to sound authentic in a way that they could not possibly have done in my mind. I can only assume they were in fact authentic–I don’t have any way to judge, but they were certainly colorful and effective. The one sailor who preceded every sentence with “Which” was particularly good–sticks in my mind a good 10 or more years after I heard them.

  20. Rufus Firefly Says:

    neo-neocon, many decades ago I stumbled onto a technique that greatly helped me focus in certain subjects. It may help you with auditory learning. Move. Move while listening.

    I don’t think I share your affliction, (definitely not to the extent you do), but I found my mind almost constantly wandering when trying to learn foreign languages. One day, having tried nearly everything else, I hopped up on my bicycle wind trainer while listening to the foreign language tape. I felt good about the workout at least, so I kept doing it, but within about two weeks I noticed I was making great strides in memorization and facility with the language. I then started experimenting with other subjects and other methods. I’d memorize lists while running (names, dates, chemical elements, theorems…). I’d read while walking. I’d read while riding a stationary bicycle. I’d study and write while standing (I’m standing even now, as I type this). And don’t tell anyone, but I’ve read thousands of pages in books while driving. I read Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” while driving hundreds of miles!

    My wife is an Occupational Therapist and often works with autistic children. Distracting their senses with sound and touch helps some of them focus, and many kids with attention disorders benefit from sitting on a round ball, rather than a four legged chair. The additional, subconscious effort of maintaining balance is just enough to keep their minds busy so they can focus and learn. About a year before discovering my trick with movement I had learned that playing Classical music in the background helped me study Calculus, while rock, blues and jazz were too distracting.

  21. richardaubrey Says:

    Agree wrt Aubrey/Maturin novels as recorded books.

  22. JK Brown Says:

    I to wander when listening to someone else read a book or even podcasts. I much prefer the written as most oral presentations are presented way to slow.

    I do, however, refuse to slight books on tape or other presentations as I remember this anecdote of life a century ago, in NYC and how television and books on tape have saved many from being trapped due to failing eyesight or other affliction.

    “At about that time one of my students, interested in the early history of New York, happened to call upon an old woman living in a shanty midway between these two schools. She was an old inhabitant, and one of the early roadways that the student was hunting had passed near her house. In conversation with the woman he learned that she had had five children, all of whom had been taken from her some years before, within a fortnight, by scarlet fever; and that since then she had been living alone. When he remarked that she must feel lonesome at times, tears came to her eyes, and she replied, “Sometimes.” As he was leaving she thanked him for his call and remarked that she seldom had any visitors; she added that, if some one would drop in now and then, either to talk or to read to her, she would greatly appreciate it; her eyes had so failed that she could no longer read for herself.”
    –How to Study and Teaching How to Study (1909) by F. M. McMurry, Professor of Elementary Education, Teachers College, Columbia University

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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