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Audiobooks or Podcasts?

Rainier Ababao · April 21, 2020 · 3 min read

One of my busy friends who loves his job but also wants to find ways to fit reading into his schedule—for personal enrichment, not to tell his friends at a party that he's "read" 52 books this year—asked me a question:

have you used Audible?

Nah, I'm skeptical of how much is retained when listening to vs reading a book.

I mostly read non-fiction. When I read, I get to build mental structures of the ideas at my own speed. I get to flip the pages back, make sure the last idea that this current idea was built on top of, made sense to me.

Maybe I'd use Audible if I read more fiction—but even then, there's a wealth of interesting fiction and narrative non-fiction podcasts intended to be listened to, and I might get higher entertainment value out of those.

Examples of these are the Long Distance episodes of Reply All and S-Town. They entertain well by weaving together a story through dialogue, using different voices (characters) and settings (studio vs. in-the-field), capture modes (raw surprise / thinking on their feet vs. a prepared response), ambient sounds mixed with music that illustrate a setting that is difficult to capture with words.

It's almost as if sound partly relieves the responsibility from the narrator to describe "what it was like" at the time. Sound abstracts away pieces of exposition ("the man said in a booming, scary voice"), without removing too much from the listener's imagination, like Hollywood sets and CGI might. Sometimes audio is the perfect balance between text and video in that regard.

Portlandia (Fred Armisen, Carrie Brownstein) pokes fun at true crime podcasts and it's hysterical.

I heard the new Malcolm Gladwell book, Talking to Strangers, is actually read by a bunch of different voices that sound like actual strangers! So audiobooks with high production quality might be exceptional cases. But generally, in order to appreciate something heard, it needs to have a strong narrative with memorable characters. The individual ideas on the page can't be too dense. Some college students spend a week studying a paragraph of Nietzsche. Most authors speak differently from how they write.

Don't get me wrong, it's great to listen to informative things during one's "idle" time (folding laundry, cooking routinely, commuting). I'm just skeptical of how much I'll retain from a medium intended to be read rather than listened to.

Friend's response:

ill continue reading while driving to work then


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