Can You Hear Me Now?

Or, Why I hate audiobooks


I hate audiobooks. I listen to two or three of them each year, usually when I’m doing something with my hands, like washing the dishes, or rewashing the dishes. I’ve never moved the relationship beyond the “just friends” stage with the aural medium. For one thing, they’re too long. When you load up your iPod with 29 hours of some author’s gift to mankind, it’s already clear that the publisher inserted at least six hours of random content just to see if anyone gets that far.

Still, if it was only the length that was beyond expectations, I could deal with that. The true problem with audiobooks is my ears, or at least the lack of processing power that my brain grants to those input devices. For reasons I can’t fathom, I am unable to retain much of any content from an audiobook. It literally (or possibly even figuratively) goes in one ear and out the other, slowed down only by the $14.99 folding headphones mounted on each end.

Let’s say I’m listening to American Prometheus, my most recent audiobook selection reviewing the tragic life of scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer. The famed “father of the atomic bomb” met a lot of people in his tragic existence, some of them tragic figures all their own. And by a lot I mean a lot, as in hundreds, possibly billions. You would think that the authors, understanding the limits of human memory, would cull the majority of those names, or at least replace them with generic one-syllable placeholders, like John or Wilt. But no, they have to insert those names as if they were part of some vast chronological narrative, where people enter the story and leave it quickly, only to show up twelve chapters later. So when authors Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin decide to insert names like Vannevar Bush, Lewis Strauss, or President Eisenhower into the story, that can’t seriously expect me to recognize them or understand their importance in the story, can they? I’m washing dishes here!

I once read (wait, it’s “listened to,” not “read”) the book Freedomnomics, by John R. Lott, Jr., a book that provides a response to the popular Freakonomics, by Levitt and Dubner. When I finished, I wrote a review of it on my website. I was delighted when the author commented back on my review, although he said that “I didn’t get it.” Didn’t get it? Doesn’t he realize that I was doing yard work while listening to his magnum opus? The bushes got trimmed; what else does he expect?

My point is that audiobooks are deceitful. Sure, they are convenient. They allow you to engage the mind when your body is elsewhere occupied, be it driving a car or performing brain surgery. But from what I can tell, they lull you into believing that you will actual comprehend a book when, in reality, your brain will treat them as the type of background noise you hear on the grocery store speakers when you’re trying to choose between paper or plastic.

[Image Credits: Rodway]


  1. I read fiction and non-fiction. I listen to the same. Different occasions call for different types of learning. I read to learn about other types of people, places I haven’t been, people I’ve never met, some who are dead, some who are living, some who don’t exist.

    I thought the posts on this book-in-progress were meant to be taken seriously, but maybe I’m missing the point.

    “My point is that audiobooks are deceitful.”

    What’s deceitful is a review about audiobooks by someone who “hates audiobooks”, but listens to them anyway (“two or three times a year”), at his own behest, for, perhaps, no other reason than to complain about them, and then goes another step and bases his review of audiobooks on nonsense logic.

    Like so:

    “With 29 hours…it’s already clear that the publisher inserted at least six hours of random content just to see if anyone gets that far.”

    Either you’re daftly incompetent about the difference between the written word and the spoken one, or angry about some unrelated thing that occurred before this post was written and can’t think straight, or you actually believe what you’re saying.

    Whatever it is, I seriously hope future posts will treat books (in general or specific) with far more professionalism, way less sarcasm, and a clear awareness of what the difference between actual facts and imagined facts.

    You’re not writing 140 character twitter blurbs where you can poke and mock in jest. This is a serious challenge you’re taking on to read “Life’s Most Important Books” in a year. Shouldn’t the writing in these posts be handled with an equal level of respect?

  2. Whoa Joey, take a step back from the ledge. I love books, and my post was somewhat tongue-in-cheek. But the truth is that I don’t get the full impact of an author’s words when I listen to a book. Reading on paper or screen is, at least for me, somewhat like looking the author in the eye. There is more clarity when I read in the traditional way. When I use my visual senses to take something in that is often audible, such as words, I seem to gain much more out of the experience.

  3. Your follow up comments are far closer to the truth when you say it straight like that. I relate to them now. I can see your point. Now you have my attention.

    When it’s burdened with all the “tounge-in-cheek” those points get lost in the desire to make it funny or clever. But like I said, now you have my attention.

    I’m hopeful to see where you’ll take it from here.

  4. Joey, I think that Tim’s just a bit soured on the audiobook format from personal experience. The “Microsoft ADO.NET 4.0 Step by Step” audiobook reading by Bill Gates was a bit stilted and dry. Although I did really enjoy the choice of Stephen Hawking to read the code samples.

  5. LOL! You’re right when it comes to nonfiction. It is much harder to follow on audio than on paper. I gave up on that long ago, though I still do podcasts while washing dishes, cleaning bathroom, etc. I do listen to audio novels when I go to bed. I find it is a great way to wind down. I figure fiction is a bit like dreaming so it puts my brain in the mood for sleep. Pleasant classic English novels seem to be best. Avoid violence–listening to 2666 gave me insomnia. :S

  6. I did enjoy listening to American Prometheus while doing twenty-nine hours of housework. But as a biography, it was more akin to a story than to typical nonfiction content. I now listen to podcasts over books. My current favorites are “My History Can Beat Up Your Politics,” NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” and “The Thomas Jefferson Hour.”


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