Why It’s Hard to Listen to Non-Fiction Books

Listening to a complicated non-fiction audio book is like walking into a random college lecture. The professor assumes a certain level of understanding from the audience and isn’t going to slow down. Reading that same lecture would still be difficult, but reading gives us many tools to aid comprehension. Let's take an example.

Look at this paragraph from a very famous business article

The fundamental disruption of the Internet has been to turn this dynamic on its head. First, the Internet has made distribution (of digital goods) free, neutralizing the advantage that pre-Internet distributors leveraged to integrate with suppliers. Secondly, the Internet has made transaction costs zero, making it viable for a distributor to integrate forward with end users/consumers at scale.

Most people, especially those outside tech, would have to read the second and third sentence several times to understand what it means. This is doable, you read, re-read, think about what each individual word means, and then form a meaning. However imagine if a professor said this off-handed and just kept moving on. There’s very little chance you’d really understand everything contained in the paragraph. 

If this was an audio book, you’d have to stop, rewind some preset number of seconds, then wait until part of the sentence was repeated. This is often made infuriating by many of our apps being preset to 30 or 45 second intervals of rewinding, creating a 20 second waiting period just to hear a sentence again. Then you’d have to do it a couple more times to really understand. 

You may see the issue. You can reduce the skipping intervals, but it will never be as exact as looking at words on a page. 

I probably sound like I share the same perspective as Naval. The replies to that tweet are a big debate on whether reading and listening to a book are equivalent. I was interested and decided to investigate a little myself. Some of the same studies came up again and again on this topic. 

Here’s some that say reading and listening is the same: 

Brain activity when reading/listening to the Moth podcast is the same between readers and listeners

Reading comprehension of Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand is the same between readers and listeners

Reading comprehension of generic passages is the same between readers and listeners

Here’s some that say reading is better than listening: 

Students perform worse on quiz when given podcast lesson than written lesson

Overview of research, mostly focused on comprehension of academic articles

There's a pretty striking difference between the studies that found a difference and those that didn't. Whenever the participants were asked to understand a narrative, then listening was the same as reading. However, when the participants were asked to learn something in a lesson, or read academic articles, they did much better when they read the material. 

Putting on the speculative evolutionary psychologist hat, this seems to make sense. Humans have been telling narratives orally for tens of thousands of years, we should be pretty good at understanding stories told to us. Learning in a classroom is fairly new however, and reading textbooks etc seems to be the main way we’ve found to consume complicated information there. 

Now, is this prescriptive? Should everyone ditch all their plans to listen to complicated books? Probably not. Audio still has many advantages that I don’t need to preach to you, and could be used to prepare yourself for an in depth reading of something. My next post will be about how audio is actually the far superior format for consuming fiction or narratives. Finally you are not the subject of a study, you are an individual. The averages of a study's participants do not change your personal preferences. For most people however, stick to reading your textbooks.