Working Through Our Infinite Library

Computer-assisted Speed Reading

The best way to “read” a book is by listening to the audiobook while following along with the text.

Audio alone allows unfamiliar vocabulary to go over your head, and has difficulty with numbers, graphics, and images, obviously. Complex prose tends to be harder to follow. Text alone lacks pronunciation for unfamiliar words and names, while requiring your complete visual attention. Unlike listening, it can’t be done passively.

Listening and reading allows a level of literary immersion that would’ve been hard enough to fathom a century ago, let alone take for granted or dismiss. I can sit down with Miranda July’s The First Bad Man and listen to Miranda July herself read it to me. Since we’re prone to misreading words, the redundancy of the narration (which can itself be misheard or ambiguous) essentially duplicates the signal.

There’s another major advantage audiobooks have over print that might not be readily apparent: the exact duration is known. Large books are indeterminate long-term commitments. This, in competition with the shorter determined running times of passive media, is the cheif concern over shorter attention spans stems from.

The running time of an album, movie, or tv show is known, but who knows how long The Brothers Karamazov is going to take you? One of the first books I read with audio was War and Peace, which I finished in a week and a half over spring break in 2011. The Brothers Karamazov, a slightly shorter book, took me most of summer 2010 reading the old-fashioned way.

Extended reading sessions are also easier. Some books hold your attention for hours on end, but narration makes any decent book that way. You don’t need to keep your eyes on the page. Look out the window and listen for a bit! It allows a sort of reading momentum the moment it would otherwise be a struggle to stay focused.

I’ve got at least two friends converted to this style of reading, and a few more about to give in. It’s true, the experience is qualitatively different. Especially with fiction, some may not want to allow a narrator to color their experience. In my experience, a lackluster narrator fades to the background, and it isn’t terribly different than traditional reading. I can say that reading Keep the Aspidistra Flying along with narration by Richard E. Grant is one of my favorite literary experiences of all time. Likewise John C. Rielly’s performance of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

I find nonfiction far easier to listen to than fiction, especially complicated fiction, and would be interested to hear if this holds for others. Perhaps it has something to do with structure, fiction written to defy reader expectations, nonfiction written so as not to lose the read. That said, one of my favorite audiobooks is Neville Jason’s unabridged In Search of Lost Time.

I’ve tested my reading speed a number of times over the years, and in short bursts I can read about 450 words per minute. This is only in brief tests, though, and I wouldn’t be able to retain much if I attempted to read an entire book at that pace. Sped-up narration approaches around 600 words per minute at 4x, which is as fast as any world record speed-talker can speak, all while retaining inflections of deliberate speech that make it much easier to follow.

Digital media means that “real-time” is a now quantifiably a waste of time. Playback rate adjustment that maintains the pitch is standard in all podcasting and audiobook apps already, and YouTube’s HTML5 player recently added speed options of its own. This is one of the strengths of podcasts, the recent popularity of which will eventually result in more audiobook listeners.

Sped up, even a bloater like Infinite Jest can be read (sans footnotes)in 14 hours using SpeedUp Player Pro, which advertises up to 2.5x speed but actually allows up to 5x. For yours truly, beyond ~3.8x is typically hard to follow.

SpeedUp Player also keeps a tally on time saved, and it’s saved me 63 days, 16 hours, and 10 minutes off “real time,” in the past half year. That is, if I listen to a 30-hour audiobook at 3x speed, I’ll finish it in 10 hours, saving 20.

Some may recoil at the thought of blasting through literature like that. You’d be surprised how good your brain is at making sense of spoken language, even supernaturally fast. People skeptical should remember what hip hop is.

Try it first with a book you’ve been meaning to reread. When more people realize that an average length book can be listened to in 3–4 hours, they’ll be able to then realize the merits of reading books more than once.

My impression of the evidence is that speed-reading is generally bullshit. The idea is that “reducing subvocalization,” or suppressing the urge to sound the words out mentally while reading, will increase speed. Reading while listening essentially outsources subvocalization. As far as retention goes, I’ll put my money on the latter.

Of course, going faster will decrease retention. Following along with the text and re-listening will have greater importance. If you really want to retain a text, you’re going to have to read it more than once. No technology or reading method will ever be able match the understanding afforded by revisiting texts. But since this method makes it easier to get through books,

It’s also much easier to follow sped-up speech with headphones on than it is over speakers. I’m unsure why this is, perhaps ambient sound is distracting.

I’ve been an Audible subscriber since 2011. It’s great. But for some reason, the Audible app has a 3x setting that is identical to the 2x setting. It’s been that way for years, and yeah I’ve even emailed them about it. One wonders why they don’t allow readers to finish books more quickly, especially given their insistence on using DRM. A third party remedy exists, but it’ll take $35 to make it run.

Speaking of the legally dubious,

I’d also observe that the amount of ebooks and audiobooks on popular torrent sites right now is enough to last you a lifetime of reading. This is a significant resource of extremely high quality information, floating just outside the walls of legality. I don’t know of a historical corollary here other than, well, libraries, which are sort of land-bound pirate ships full of intellectual property, introduced by Benjamin Franklin.

Most major books, fiction or nonfiction, appear on filesharing sites given enough time. The audio version of The Economist can be found online a day or two after it’s published, and I suspect The Economist may be aware of this, content with the knowledge they’re nabbing future subscribers a la Microsoft. I expect people spend more on books after they start torrenting them then they did before. I know I have.

Much is made now of music being “devalued.” It’s worth remembering how much books used to cost, via Brad DeLong:

Thus a single book in 1300 cost as large a share of a typical person’s income then as $50,000 is today: acquiring a single book was as great a relative investment and expenditure as a full year of a private college — tuition, fees, room, and board — is today.

Full books have also been appearing on YouTube. If you want to YouTube your audiobooks, use this Chrome plugin to adjust the playback rate for HTML5 videos from .1x to 4x speed.

Free and legal audiobooks can be found in abundance as well. Librivox is a beautiful thing and you should get familiar with it. You can download or subscribe to audiobooks-as-podcasts of nearly every major work you can think of published prior to 1923. So Dickens, Spinoza, George Eliot, the Kama Sutra, on and on. Go crazy. Public domain works like The 9/11 Commission Report are also frequently recorded, all by volunteers.

The podcast app to beat is Overcast. It adjusts playback from .75x to 2.25x speed, and has a “Smart Speed” feature that truncates silences on the fly, keeping track of the time you save omitting dead air. I think I’ve had the app about a year and, to date, it’s saved me 188 hours beyond speed adjustments alone.

Overcast’s “Smart Speed” feature is useful with Librivox because the volunteer narrators tend to read slowly. Though the narration isn’t professional, it’s often difficult to tell. 5 years ago, the Librivox community was still trying to record the major works. That’s done, and now the focus is on recording better versions. Alongside Wikipedia, it’s one of the better examples of the possibilities of non-commercial collaboration.

Thomas Jefferson’s daily routine.

It’s said Thomas Jefferson spent a portion of his life reading up to 12 hours a day, which one acknowledges was the prerogative of a slaveowner. He also loved riding horses, spending three to four hours on horseback each day. I think he’d have rather liked the idea of having the author of a book, or a professional “reciter,” let’s say, literally read it to him as he rides his horse.

What is this sorcery? And yet, for the longest time, we’ve had a definite society-wide ambivalence toward audiobooks. As if it were cheating somehow. It’s seemed silly to me probably since listening to Stephen Fry’s Harry Potter as a kid. I played a lot of Kingdom Hearts while listening to those in junior high, which isn’t exactly horse-riding but you see the parallel.

A few material considerations I think have held audiobooks back.

First, it takes a hell of a lot of vinyl, cassettes, and Cds to store an unabridged audiobook. From a mobility standpoint, audiobooks have only made practical sense since the iPod.

Secondly, perhaps because it took so many CDs, the prices were exorbitant. I feel like a Harry Potter book was over $100.

Third, the reading is slloo0wwww. This is a common complaint I get even now, from friends I’ve coerced into trying audiobooks.

None of these are an issue any longer.

There is nothing “natural” about a deep-seated preference for text.

As evidence, take Plato’s Phaedrus, a Socratic dialogue that doubles as the earliest known new media think piece. Socrates says:

He who thinks, then, that he has left behind him any art in writing, and he who receives it in the belief that anything in writing will be clear and certain, would be an utterly simple person…if he thinks written words are of any use except to remind him who knows the matter about which they are written…
…every word, when once it is written, is bandied about, alike among those who understand and those who have no interest in it, and it knows not to whom to speak or not to speak; when ill-treated or unjustly reviled it always needs its father to help it; for it has no power to protect or help itself.

For obvious reasons, this dialogue has had a bit of a resurgence over the past decade with tech and media writers. This portion is especially worth remembering any time a comedian ends up in hot water for tweets.

Text is a technological invention and, relative to spoken language, a recent one. There’s no inherent reason text should be considered better than speech.

In Socrates theres also a whiff of elitism and mistrust of the uninstructed mob, which if written in the 90's may have looked something like this:

Despite blather about the “information superhighway” in popular culture, connecting classrooms and libraries to the Internet is a horrible idea. The Internet at best brings convenience to everyday life. It allows us to check the weather, the news, the stock market and so on very quickly. None of this information helps educate children. But the Internet does not just fail to educate children; it even obstructs their education. The information on it lacks veritable scholastic quality because it is not filtered through the ordinary editing and publishing process of books and magazines.

-Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, who prefers letters.

What Socrates didn’t account for is how productive we are with information when it’s more easily accessible, and how powerful (Holy, even) books would come to be regarded. The internet will change civilization as completely, and our practices will change as well.

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