Monday, June 10, 2019

The Case for Audio Books

Audio books, listening, ear buds, woman with ear buds, books, favorite accessory

Okay, it's 2019 now. Audio books have made great strides in becoming accepted forms of "reading". Most of us have realized how awesome audio books are in terms of convenience, allowing for multi-tasking, and just sheer entertainment value. Audio books are here to stay for good.

However, there are still some purists out there. Some book lovers who hold to the hard line that if your eyes don't actually see the words on a piece of paper, then it doesn't "count." And look, I'm not here to bash those people down and say they are wrong.

All I want to do is give some historical context for this debate.

But let's start with science. Science has weighed in on this argument before, with studies coming down on both sides. On the pro-audio-books-side we get studies like the following:

1. This one, a blog post by Dr. Daniel Willingham, is perhaps my favorite. He's an educational psychologist who focuses on the science of reading, and he lays out my favorite defense of audio books.

2. Then, I love studies like this one, that show how beneficial audio books can be for developing literacy in children. Yes and yes!

3. And then there are a bunch of other studies on some more random positives, like this one about emotional impact (don't love that this one is sponsored by Audible, always a red flag, but interesting findings nonetheless!).

But then there are articles like this one from Time, which acknowledge some of the benefits of audio books, but land on the side of paper books for the following reasons:

-Inability to go back and re-read material to aid in comprehension
-No underlining/highlighting/marginalia, and no ability to see textual cues (like bolded headings, etc.) that help organize information in the brain.
-And, the multi-tasking thing can really be a distraction! Your brain can't focus on two activities at once!

I don't disagree with any of these points. They are valid positives for reading books in print. I love reading many types of texts in print for the benefits of these very reasons!

However, I do want to talk about how all of those arguments might not matter as much as some "paper books or die" hard-liners think.

There is one quote from that Time article that I actually think is really, really important for understanding this whole debate. One researcher, Dr. David Daniel, participated in a study that found that people who listened to information on a podcast vs. reading it in print performed significantly worse on a comprehension quiz, but he made the following observation: "We get good at what we do, and you could become a better listener if you trained yourself to listen more critically." In other words, perhaps we don't comprehend from listening as well as from reading simply because we don't practice critical listening nearly as much.

And this is the point I want to make. Historically speaking, the human mind is far more adapted to receive and comprehend oral information than written information. We were speaking and telling stories and orally communicating for centuries before writing ever developed. In fact, writing is so new on the evolutionary time scale that we as humans haven't actually evolved any physiological features specific to writing and silent reading, we just borrow from all the language areas of the brain that were already in place for spoken communication.

And even after the invention of writing, sound and phonetics and oral communication remained dominant or at least equally important for information sharing for centuries. Much of this was due to the scarcity and expense of writing materials. Papers, inks, writing utensils, and books were all prohibitively expensive for the vast majority of the population, and so when households were lucky enough to have a book or two, reading was usually a communal experience, with one person reading aloud for the rest of the household to listen to. We know from some interesting historical accounts that reading was still very connected to the oral for a long time: when people read, even if it was just to themselves, they read aloud. Words were sound, they were not separated.

Even after the printing press and the drastic influx of printed material and literacy rates, it really wasn't until the Romantic period, about the end of the 18th, early 19th Century, when reading became a solitary and silent activity. It was about at this point when writers began writing more for that silent type of reading as well. Before the Romantics, the dominant literary forms were drama (Shakespeare) and poetry, both of which benefit greatly from being read aloud. The rhyme, the cadence, the whole literary form is deeply connected with the sound of the words being said aloud. But after the Romantic period (which did have it's fair share of poetry), the novel really became the dominant literary form. Prose novels disassociated spoken and written language like never before, and with the longer and longer works, it became easier and faster for readers to read silently in their heads.

But what I want to stress is that silent, individual reading is a fairly new trend in the grand historical perspective. We seem to think it is the "best" way to consume information, but that is only because it is what we are taught and what we spend most of our time practicing. I've read the studies all about how we comprehend complex information better if we read it on paper, underline, highlight, or how note-taking on paper helps us retain information we listen to. But I think that some scholars of antiquity  (think Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, you know, those really stupid people) would have grounds for accusing us of "cheating" when we do that. Can't we just remember what we hear? Those guys used to have serious memories, and we "cheat" ourselves of a great deal by relying on paper notes and books to store all the information for us, with only the need for us to remember where it is stored, not what the information actually is. After all, we can always go look it up!

I've found personally in my own experience that listening comprehension really is a skill that can be improved with practice. When I first started listening to audio books, I could only handle listening to a few genres (lighter, fluffier, entertaining novels) at single speed. I didn't like listening to non-fiction or super flowery literary texts. Soon, I worked my way up to listening at 1.5 speed, and while it was disorienting at first, my brain soon caught up and it began to feel normal.

Now, I listen to everything--non-fiction, literary fiction, all the genres--at double speed and it doesn't even begin to phase me (and there was even a period where I accidentally listened to a few books in a row at triple speed, but my brain did have trouble with comprehension then). Initially, my rule for myself was that I would only listen to books I read for personal enjoyment, and that I would read on paper all my school work. But last year, after years and years of audio book listening, I finally decided to try listening to some of my homework on audio. And we're not just talking about how I listened to Jane Eyre and Emma, I also tried out listening to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Beowulf on audio, and other more complex texts that I could find audio versions of. And guess what! It worked great! Did I retain as much as I would've if I'd read them on paper? I don't know for sure. But I do believe with more and more practice, my critical listening skills will only get sharper and sharper. I'll be able to comprehend more, remember more, and have just as profound literary experiences through listening as through traditional reading.

I do want to note that my comprehension experience with texts like the Canterbury Tales and Shakespeare's plays may actually have been enhanced by listening due to the fact that these plays and poems were meant to be spoken aloud, and hearing them can add a lot that a silent reading experience misses out on. But I will admit that this type of enhancement may not hold true for every genre, especially modern literature. The last time I tried listening to an audio book of Virginia Woolf, I struggled to understand what was going on, not because I'm not a good listener, but because that specific text was very much written by an author who was writing for the silent, individual reading audience. I will absolutely agree that some texts are better in written form, not because reading with your eyes is inherently better, but simply because that is the type of reading the text was designed for.

However, I will still contend that complex ideas can be communicated verbally. Think of university lectures. Think of TED talks and presentations. Think of famous speeches. Think of religious sermons. We can listen to big ideas, complex ideas, and understand them without the aid of our eyes looking at words. The same is true for stories. Even long ones (heck, both the Illiad and the Odyssey were oral poems performed in front of live audiences before they were written down). We can listen and understand and follow long narrative (and not narrative texts) without ever looking a single written word. Our brains were designed to do that.

One final note, about the criticism of multi-tasking. The Time article states that listening to audio books is bad for comprehension because we will be tempted into multi-tasking and be unable to concentrate. I'm the first to agree that multi-tasking is bad for the brain. You simply can't focus on two intellectually demanding jobs at once. You can't listen to an audio book and respond to emails at the same time. At least not well. But there are plenty of activities people do every day that do not require any sort of conscious attention: washing dishes, driving that familiar commute to work, folding the laundry. Those tasks are perfect for listening to audio books: your hands stay busy (an important part of attention and focus) but your mind is free to listen and pay full attention to the book.

So there it is. My case for audio books. Don't dismiss them because you don't think they are as "legitimate" as reading a paper book. Audio literature was legitimate before paper books were even invented. And don't assume that just because you may find it difficult to listen or remember or understand as well with audio information that the entire form is not as good. You've just been raised in a paper-oriented world and trained yourself to learn/understand/read that way. With a little practice, your audio/listening skills can prove to be just as sharp. Remember, your brain really was designed to process language that way!

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