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you know, that one guy

Audiobooks

I love podcasts. I listen to them while performing a wide variety of tasks, including programming, running, cleaning, and driving. The obsession started during graduate school when I became bored while coding. I had a large iTunes library, but music went stale quickly. I also swore off terrestrial radio due to the absurdly obnoxious advertisements, misogynistic sports talk, and repetitive music lists. Around that time, I happened upon a podcast called The Talk Show, then hosted on the 5by5 Network. I even wrote a small list of my favorite podcasts. Podcasts became my saving grace.

It is hard for me to fully communicate my love for the podcast genre. I am a scientist, however, so let us look at numbers. My podcast player of choice, Overcast, has a feature called Smart Speed that tries to increase the playback speed of a track without adversely affecting the audio quality. Since Overcast launched 18 months ago, that feature has saved me 152 hours of listening time — or almost an entire week! I suppose my affinity for podcasts is simple. I like listening to people talk. To be more specific, I enjoy feeling as though I am privy to a secret conversation between a group of smart friends. No matter the topic, a podcast is a form of storytelling — and I love a good story.

It would be logical, then, that I should love audiobooks. Up until now, however, I have eschewed them with a pugnacious arrogance. Clearly listening to audiobooks was cheating, and to truly experience a book required the absorption of the words that were printed so nicely on page or screen. That was my response whenever my wife spoke highly of her audiobooks or attempted to convince me to try one out. I realize that this sounds silly, but my stance bordered on zealotry and the battle between reason and belief raged wildly in my head.

Two things happened last month that acted to change my mind. First, while perusing old articles in the New York Times mobile app, I found a story by T. M. Luhrmann, titled Audiobooks and the Return of Storytelling. This passage helped me understand why I felt that audiobooks were a form a laziness,

We tend to regard reading with our eyes as more serious, more highbrow, than hearing a book read out loud. Listening to a written text harkens back to childhood, when we couldn’t read it ourselves, or a time when our parents left off reading the chapter out loud in the middle, a nudge that we’d use our school-taught skills to finish it off by ourselves.

and this passage helped me understand why I was wrong:

But for most of human history literature has been spoken out loud. The Iliad and the Odyssey were sung. We think that the Homeric singers of those tales mastered the prodigious mnemonic task presented by those thousands upon thousands of lines of text through an intricate combination of common phrases — rosy-fingered dawn, the wine-dark sea — and nested plots that could be expanded or shortened as the occasion demanded.

Second, my wife and I set yearly reading goals on Goodreads. I fell woefully short of my goal in 2015, while she exceeded hers and almost doubled my output. It was not a matter of book length; her average pages per book was larger than mine. Frankly, she kicked my ass. We are competitive and enjoy talking smack, so the thought of enduring another losing year was too much. I conceded that audiobooks were worth trying.

Time is a precious commodity. Its value lies in the fact that we cannot create more. This is the main roadblock for me to achieve my reading goals. Between a full-time academic job, a child, and a small business, reading is usually limited to the time right before falling asleep. This almost always ends earlier than anticipated because my eyes become intent on closing. “Come on, dude! Fucking stay open!”, I say to my eyes. They always get the last laugh when I read the the same sentence five times or smack myself in the head with my Kindle. The efficiency afforded by audiobooks — allowing one to consume a story while also performing other tasks — is perhaps more appealing to me than the art of oral storytelling.

In January 2014, I started the process of chronologically reading Stephen King’s entire bibliography. The process has been slow, but I just finished the 18th work, Pet Sematary, at the end of 2015. The start of this year seemed like the perfect time to try out an audiobook version of the next story, Christine. I paired this experiment with another personal goal of running every day. To my pleasant surprise, the result has been wonderful. I am not only able to focus on the story, but I find that I run at a far more steady pace than I do when listening to music (I am sure that you, like me, feel the need to speed up when Eminem starts on an awesome riff). My brain also seems to focus more on the story than telling my out-of-shape ass to quit. Listening to the audiobook has also proven effective while cleaning or doing any other mindless jobs. While I have been able to follow along when driving, there have been a few instances where I had to rewind 30 seconds because I missed a sentence. I am now almost halfway through the book after three days by combining listening to the audiobook and reading on the Kindle. Although I can certainly read faster than the narrator speaks, the ability to listen while doing other things means that I am much farther along than if I were solely reading.

I plan to listen to the audiobook version of my next assignment. At some point, I will post a follow-up to address whether audiobooks are still working out. In the meantime, I encourage you to give audiobooks a chance. If you share my previously held opinion that audiobooks are lazy or that written books are intellectually superior, then take a step back and distill them down to their essence. What is a book, after all? Luhrmann tells us through the quote of the 17th century missionary Matteo Ricci:

The whole point of writing something down is that your voice will then carry for thousands of miles, whereas in direct conversation it fades at a hundred paces.

Just like a book, an audiobook is someone telling us a story — and I love a good story.

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