Listening to an Audiobook Is Not the Same as Reading a Real One

Photo by Varun Gaba on Unsplash

“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”

Two days ago, Ray Bradbury would have been 100 years old. If he could comment on his observation from 1993, he’d probably conclude we’re succeeding.

In 1953, Bradbury published Fahrenheit 451, a dystopian vision of the world in which books are illegal and so-called “firemen” burn any that remain.

40 years later, he understood we didn’t need law and fire to destroy the written word: We just had to make sure we’re too busy to look at it.

In 1993, it was tabloids and TV. Today, it’s the internet and video games. None of these things are inherently bad. They’re just too seductive — and we’re too weak to prioritize what’s important.

However, even Bradbury couldn’t have anticipated the world’s most ingenious installment in tearing us away from turning the page. Instead of distracting us from books altogether, it now seduces us with an innocent prompt:

“If you don’t have time to read, why don’t you just listen?”

Audiobooks are the fastest-growing segment of publishing. In the US, $1.2 billion worth of them were sold in 2019, eclipsing ebooks by more than 22%.

Publishers love it. Authors love it. Listeners love it. The only missing ingredient? Readers.

Publishers love audiobooks because they can sell them with zero marginal cost of production. Once you’ve made the thing, you can let as many people download it as you want. Each extra paperback requires, well, extra paper.

Authors love them because for a few hours of recording, they might add another 50, 100, 200% in revenue for the work they’ve already done.

Listeners love them because you can fit audio into all kinds of cracks in your day. Pressing play takes zero commitment, but it’ll satisfy your curiosity and desire to feel like a smart, knowledgeable person. Unfortunately, much of that feeling is hollow.

Naval’s criticism is harsh, but he has a point: “Listening to books instead of reading them is like drinking your vegetables instead of eating them.”

Let’s get the facts straight: Yes, print books are still outselling both ebooks and audiobooks by a factor of ten or more. Yes, audio has a few advantages over print, and if you’re reading for fun, it doesn’t matter which one you pick.

However, overall book sales have been declining for six years. If audio and ebooks are growing, that only leaves one conclusion: print books are dying.

If print book sales decline 10% per year while audio keeps growing 25%, which isn’t unreasonable, it’ll take nine years until audio overtakes print.

You can change the numbers and add or subtract five to ten years, but the trend is clear, and if it continues, print books will be dead by 2050 — no firemen needed.

Let’s ask another seemingly innocent question: “Would that be so bad?”

You probably like audiobooks. Maybe, you’re proud of how much you’re listening. I don’t want to rain on your parade. I wish listening and reading were the same. It would help my reading too. I haven’t done well lately.

The truth, however, is that reading a book and listening to one are not the same thing. Not even close. They are two fundamentally different modes of consuming information.

One of them integrates seamlessly into our new culture of busy, of short attention spans, multitasking, and always being “on.” The other doesn’t. It forces us to break with our new behaviors, to sit down, make time, forego other pleasures, and to focus on a singular object: the book in our hands.

There’s a reason for this cultural match and mismatch, and it’s not that with audiobooks, we’ve suddenly discovered “a better way to read” — it’s that we’ve shredded reading into a piecemeal format that makes us feel just good enough to check off one of our many busy-boxes on our infinitely growing to-do list.

“Reading? Of course, of course, I listen to audiobooks all the time!”

This is a socially acceptable answer these days, but in the quiet secrecy of our homes while looking into the mirror, I think you and I both know that it’s not the real deal. It’s a substitute because, like 57% of audiobook listeners in the UK, we “have no time to sit and read physical books.”

Here are the unique benefits of audiobooks:

  • Since you can’t re-read as easily, you’re more focused on extracting the overall message.
  • It feels more social, and intonation helps better communicate emotions. You’ll also get correct pronunciations instantly.

Here’s why reading physical books is indispensable:

  • From voices to images to plot to meaning, your brain fills in countless gaps while reading, which creates much more colorful, stronger memories.
  • 10–15% of your eye movements while reading are regressive: You’re re-checking what you read subconsciously, and it improves your retention. It’s like asking a speaker, “Can you repeat that?” but better.
  • When you snap out of a daydream, you can pick up where you left off, and physically turning pages gives you small breaks to process what you’ve read.
  • You get structural cues on what matters through punctuation marks, bolding, italicizing, underlining, etc., which you process subconsciously.
  • With physical books, you constantly have a spatial sense of where you are in the story, which further improves how well you remember. You can also take notes and integrate them in this space-based framework, for example by writing in the margin.

When acclaimed researcher David Daniel compared learning from podcasts vs. books in a study, he found the podcast group did “a lot worse” — about 28%, which reflects the gap between an A and a D grade in school.

He also made a fascinating observation: At the outset of the study, participants preferred being in the podcast group. Right before he handed them the quiz to test their retention, however, almost everyone wanted to switch. “They knew they hadn’t learned as much,” he said.

When I was a kid, I listened to audio cassettes all the time. To this day, I can recall etiquette rules and proper cutlery placement from “Benjamin Flowers’ Day as a Butler” — a famous cartoon elephant in Germany.

From my entire adult life, the only significant audiobook memory I have is listening to Managing Oneself by Peter Drucker in my car: “A person can perform only from strength,” he said. “One cannot build performance on weaknesses, let alone on something one cannot do at all.”

What unites these two distinct experiences is focus.

As a child, I sat on the floor of my room, listening to those stories. I wasn’t engaged in other activities. I was just listening, imagining, following along.

While listening to Drucker, I was driving, but it was a 45-minute audiobook and a 90-minute drive. I spent the same amount of time processing the information as I did consuming it. I thought about it in silence. I repeated parts that stood out, including the above quote. That’s why I remember.

This is the knockout argument for reading books, and it overshadows not just all the others in favor of it, it undoubtedly destroys our “I can learn just as much from audiobooks” bubble: Humans can’t multitask.

Doing two things at the same time is something “one cannot do at all,” and so it’s foolish to assume you can plug in your AirPods while making dinner and catch up to Warren Buffett.

We speak of multitasking, but psychologists say, actually, no such thing exists. We should call it “task switching,” because even though it only takes a fraction of a second, that’s what we’re doing — and if you add up those fractions, they could cost you up to 40% of your cognitive function on any given day.

This raises many questions about our overall productivity, but it makes one thing abundantly clear: If you’ve replaced your entire reading time with listening to audiobooks, you’re seriously impeding your learning.

You’re not saving time, you’re not understanding everything as efficiently, and you’re definitely not getting smarter any faster. All you’ve done is add more busy when doing the opposite is the only answer.

Every minute spent in a book is a minute of culture defended.

Listening to audiobooks is a nice recreational activity if done deliberately and on its own — but it can’t and must not replace reading real books, especially if it means perpetuating our already problematic state of constant busyness.

As much as I admire Ray Bradbury for his creativity, vision, and linguistic skill, I want nothing more than for us to prove him wrong. Read real books.

Defending our culture is a serious matter — and it’s not something we can do while folding our laundry.

I write for dreamers, doers, and unbroken optimists. For my best articles & book updates, go here:

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