Why audiobooks have their place, but paper will give you the edge over goldfish

copyright Jeff Golden, 2010

For years now, podcasts have taken up the time I used to spend reading. Rather than opening a book when I boarded a streetcar, I’d pop in my earbuds and have Marc Maron or Ira Glass keep me company. Sometimes, to placate my guilt about not reading, I’d listen to Eleanor Wachtel interview authors, convincing myself that was almost the same as opening a book.

Trying an audiobook instead never occurred to me. For some reason, I’ve always considered them cheating, like serving takeout food at a dinner party. I have a friend who swears by his Audible subscription, and even though he’s worked through some impressive titles, from the Histories of Herodotus to all seven volumes of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, I’ve wondered if he can truly say he’s read those books. After all, he just listened to them. Where’s the heavy lifting? The eye strain? The falling asleep mid-sentence?

It turns out that my self-flagellating Protestant work ethic may have been blinding me to the genuine merit of listening to literature. A 2011 Forbes article cites research that states, “[R]eading and listening are strikingly similar cognitive processes.” Listening might even have the edge on reading, because we’re more likely to stick with an idea we’re hearing. Reading competes with countless other distractions, particularly in an age when the average attention span is just eight seconds. (With nine substantial seconds, the goldfish has us beat.)

On the other hand, Fast Company reported in 2014 on a University of Waterloo study that found people who listened to content were more likely to have their minds wander than those who read the text silently. In fact, really focused reading, with minimal distractions and deep concentration, can yield some valuable psychological results. A 2013 Time article reported on a number of studies that found people who engaged in fully immersed reading of fiction “appear to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and view the world from their perspective.”

I think I’m going to try a mix of both. I’ve found a free audio version of Middlemarch that I’ll listen to while I’m taking my lunch-hour stroll at work, and I’ll be sure to make some quiet time for myself so that I can really dig into Eliot’s prose, improving my attention span and empathy in the process.

Take that, stupid goldfish.

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Originally published at forcedmiddlemarch.com on June 5, 2016.