The Advantages and Disadvantages of Audiobooks
Listen here folks—off to a great start with the audio puns—we need to talk about audiobooks; my concerns can be summed up in one sentence.
Audiobooks are supplementary, not substitutional to reading
Like any other medium we use to acquire information, audiobooks have some caveats that you best consider before pressing play.
But I don’t mean to sound like a book purist, there are numerous benefits to come from audiobooks when done right.
Here are the advantages and disadvantages of audiobooks that I have found to be most the valuable. After reading this you’ll sure to be an expert on when to listen and when to read.
Advantage: Audiobooks reinforce or prepare you for reading
The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table (1858) by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.
Audiobooks are great for strengthening your base knowledge on a given topic. As Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr pronounced, ideas are never the same when we encounter them again. So when you work with material multiple times over, you increase the chance of gaining value from the work just by having more exposure to the concepts.
For example, let’s say you listen to the audiobook before reading. This can prime you to better understand the text down the road. Personal I have used audiobooks as book prep work for reading books with more complex topics or vocabulary—especially the vocab.
When you are introduced to a book that seems ‘out of your league’, listen to a few chapters, write down words you don’t know, and the general ideas. Your hard work becomes clear when you finally pick up the book. Now you have a list of the words you struggled with ready, and some general themes prepared for if you get lost.
But perhaps you read the book before listening—there’s still huge value here.
Listening to a book can reinforce what you already read. This can be a very useful tool when you are seeking out more ways to engage with an author’s writing.
Before you start listening I recommend you grab a blank piece of paper and write down everything you remember about the book. Then as you listen frequently stop and check your knowledge. You can do this by using a tactic I call Projection Reading.
How Projection reading works is when you think the author is about to explain a concept or anecdote that you are familiar with, immediately stop the audio recording, and explain it to yourself. Resume playing to check how you did. Projection reading works by taking advantage of immediate feedback audiobooks provide—a type of trial and error. It is a simple way to give yourself a gauge on your understanding of a piece of information.
Advantage: Audiobooks tell a good story
You sit in a dark room, eyes closed, listening to the Lord of the Rings spoken by J. R. R. Tolkien himself. Your imagination paints the epic tale vividly, placing you in a state so scenery you begin to question why you aren’t an elf.
Audiobooks are an excellent storytelling device.
You can easily immerse yourself in the land of fiction by using them to paint the setting. By intentionally listening to the story, you can create the mental images to creatively explore your imaginary depiction of the scene.
The fictional simulations you construct are valuable tools for fostering creativity and empathy. Both of which can be used to address real-life circumstances.
I do not take advantage of this enough.
Advantage: Audiobooks are a tool for skill acquisition
Audiobooks are excellent tools for cultivating mental capacities. Just like with projection reading, we can use audiobooks as an instrument for strengthening a specific desired skill set. Let’s take a look at a two.
To explain the relationship between audiobooks and reading speed let’s think about rubber bands.
Like a rubber band, the pace that we read can be stretched. And depending on how you listen to audiobooks, you may be able to change the speed; this is where we start stretching.
By finding a pace that feels slightly uncomfortable, we can start to stretch our capacities to follow along with the reader. Doing so can move us more quickly through a text without sacrificing clarity—clarity is safeguarded because anytime we are unclear, we slow it down.
We can stretch our reading comprehension by reading as we listen— we will discuss this in depth later this month when we talk about speed reading tactics.
A new language is best supported through continual practice in every way you can. So when you are learning a new language it can be very helpful to listen to the pronunciations from a native speaker.
Becoming accustomed to the subtle ways an accent sounds can train the ear to notice the difference in tonality, allowing you to then surrogate what the native speaker does into your own linguistic pallet—in other words, you copy them.
A Study tiled Imitation Improves Language Comprehension published by Sage had this to say:
“Imitative behavior streamlines social interaction and aids in learning to replicate actions… Post-training measures showed that accent comprehension was most improved for participants who imitated the speaker’s accent.”
Improving your own language capabilities can become a little less stressful with the accessibility of audiobooks. At any free moment, you can immerse yourself in the language you’re studying, while accruing the benefits of potentially imitating the native speaker’s accent.
Disadvantages: (Most) nonfiction audiobooks are not efficient for growth
Not all books are read equally. So when you download Plato’s Republic, don’t expect to casually listen to it while you do the dishes—and if you do, don’t expect to become a professional philosopher from a few dishwashing session on 2x speed.
Certain books are just not transferable to the audio platform. Some concepts need visuals, must be reviewed several times, and aren’t written for spoken words—even if they ought to be. This is why listening to complex titles is almost impossible through audiobooks.
Nonfiction tends to lack the immersive storytelling methods that make for a great fiction audiobook. That does not mean that Malcolm Gladwell or Michael Lewis could not take us on a journey for intellectual pursuits. It’s simply in most cases, nonfiction is best read especially if you’re seeking to develop a deep understanding of the material.
Disadvantages: Audiobooks are less engaging
If reading is a long-term relationship, then audiobooks are speed dating.
One of the reasons people tend to listen to audiobooks over reading is due to convenience. But don’t forget: Audiobooks are supplementary but not substitutional to reading.
But why does a more engaging experience matter anyways?
Being more engaged means we are more likely to reach a state of disfluency. Disfluency occurs when we’re working hard. You put more effort into organizing all the questions, concepts, and examples that are flowing through your head to make sense of what you’re engaging with. And through that, the brain creates stronger connections to make sense of all the information. What was once an unorganized garble of information about the book now becomes a functional model for understanding the text.
When we read our eyes are committed to a cause. With Audiobooks you cannot highlight, take notes in the margins, and conveniently reread a page over and over. So when you plan to listen to a book keep in mind that you are shallowly engaging with the text.
Disadvantages: Audiobooks cognitively reduce reading competence
As the last point foreshadowed, since you engage shallowly with auditory content, you do not gain the same benefit you would if you read the book.
This may seem contrary to popular beliefs, but listening and reading do not provide the same experience to your brain cognitively and therefore, are not synonymous enough to be used interchangeably for intellectual pursuits.
Research conducted by the University of Waterloo titled The way we encounter reading material influences how frequently we mind wander had this to say about the effects of listening to a passage v. reading it in silence.
“Listening to the passage was also associated with the poorest memory performance and the least interest in the material. Finally, within the silent reading and listening encounters we observed negative relations between mind wandering and both memory performance and interest in the material,”
If our minds are constantly wandering from audiobooks, it will be extremely challenging to reach states of disfluency while engaging with the material. As readers for self-improvement, we must be wary of tactics that aren’t as effective at consolidating information that we invest our free time in consuming.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with preferring audiobooks to reading—perhaps it is simply more convenient and that is what matters to you.
But when you choose audiobooks, you must understand that you’re sacrificing your engagement with the material for convenience. Reading’s dominance over audiobooks is not any less significant because of your life situation.
We all have a choice when it comes to how deeply we would like to engage with information, it’s up to you to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of both listening and reading given your circumstances.
If you are looking for ways to start reading more often check out my post on the various ways I use to read more.
Why do you read? And are you reading enough?
If you’re looking for some great books to start reading more, go check out the titles I have reviewed in my 2017 journal. There are tons of books about psychology, philosophy, meditation, and so much more. Go check out the special page I created to share what I’ve learned about living intentionally with you.
Find the Book Summaries page here.