Audibooks Are For Fiction

Over the past few years I’ve developed a great appreciation for audiobooks. The ever growing number of titles available (especially on Audible) and the increase in the quality of the recordings make them a joy to listen to.

It seems though, that audiobooks are not suited for non-fiction. At least not for me.

The first audiobook I listened to was Malcom Gladwell’s “Blink.” I had previously read the book and wanted a recap on it’s basic tenets and hypotheses. For this, the audiobook was the perfect format. I listened while I walked the dog, in traffic and pretty much anywhere I could find a few minutes. As I had already been through the material, this was a great way to recap. I was hooked.


Soon Daniel Silva, Neal Stephenson, George RR Martin and other non-fiction writers made their way to my iPod. This was a great way to experience books, especially when traveling (I was making loooooong trips every 3 months and the books really helped pass the time).

Then, I decided to try my hand (ear?) at listening to non-fiction titles – starting with David Rock’s “Your Brain At Work”. I was shocked to find that I had an exceedingly tough time getting to grips with the material. Since I had previously had a good experience with non-fiction (listening Gladwell) my attribution bias kicked in and I assumed my bad memory was to blame or maybe my inability to process this new, dense information.

Lately, I’ve been trying out the Amazon Whispersync feature – where I can listen to a book AND read it on my Kindle. If I leave off at a point on my Kindle, the Audio Book will scrub to that point in the recording, it works wonderfully. The problem is, I don’t.

I noticed an annoying trend: I would only be able to deeply understand the sections I had read on my Kindle, and would have only a fleeting recollection of the sections I listened to via Audiobook. This invalidated my earlier bias theory, since I was able to comprehend the same material just fine when reading it.

This happened to me during Charles Duhig’s “The Power of Habit” and again during Bill Bryson’s (phenomenal) “A Short History of Nearly Everything”

The information would not sink in if it was merely listened to.

Now, I’ve formed some theories as to why this is:

1) Unless I was traveling in a cab or a plane, I was never “just listening” to the book.

There was always something else diluting my focus. Since our brains are primed to a) always scan our environments for threats (e.g a jogger while driving) and also to minimize the resources allocated to non-essential tasks, this is now kind of obvious to see. As I’ve written before, there are different ways to pay attention, the most effective of these being Deep Attention and another less-effective being Hyper Attention. Being able to concentrate on one thing at a time allows for Deep Attention, which has better knowledge retention than the scattered, unfocussed Hyper Attention.

2) I would fall asleep

Most of the time when I tried to sit and consciously, actively listen to the material for more than 20 minutes, I would fall asleep. An overwhelming number of audiobook narrators have rich, soothing voices. Which would then richly soothe me off to sleep.

So; I could listen while walking or driving and not retain much, or focus on the material and only get 20 minutes worth of quality listening. Not a great trade-off.

This is why I enjoyed the fiction, but the heaver stuff became confusing and frustrating.

3) Pausing to think is harder, or rather, less easy with audiobooks.

When reading a book, I often stop to contemplate and frame a passage of text, ask myself a question about this new information to test it out and THEN move on. This all happens in a few seconds, but it also happens very often. When listening to the book, I need to reach for the phone/mp3 player, unlock it and then hit play. It only takes 2 seconds, but it’s enough to throw me off, so I stopped doing it. I don’t take the time to completely interrogate and absorb the material. Since the brain learns by asking questions and my brain was no longer doing this, it’s obvious that I wouldn’t learn anything.

All of this means that by the end of the book, I have questioned little, thought less and retained almost nothing. The books become disposable.

Now, however, there is an up-side. I have a number of books that I need to re-read (really read) and not just listen to. Which means that there is a vast quantity of fascinating paradigms for me to try on, ideas to question and knowledge to glean. I think this is going to be fun.

Here are some of the books I will be re-reading

  • Thinking Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman
  • The Paradox Of Choice – Barry Shwartz
  • The Power of Habit – Charles Duhig
  • Your Brain At Work – David Rock
  • Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and The Brain
  • What Every BODY Is Saying – Joe Navarro and Marvin Karlins
  • A Short History Of Nearly Everything
  • Super Freakonomics – Steve Levitt and Stephen Dubner
  • Winner Takes All: China’s Race for Resources and What It Means for the World – Dambisa Moyo
  • Getting Started in Consulting – Alan Weiss