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Do You Find Audiobooks Too Slow?

3286083026_c1584371af_bThis blogger has long noted that readers usually have one of two opinions on audiobooks: we either love them or hate them.

If you love audiobooks then you use them all the time and credit the format with giving you a chance to read all those books you don’t have time for; and if you hate them, chances are you are too polite to say so (or you gave up on audiobooks at a point when you merely felt a mild dislike for the spoken book).

That’s what I’ve always believed, and now I have a half-baked theory to explain it. Joshua Kim posted this over on Inside Higher Ed last week:

My half-baked hypothesis is that audiobooks are just too slow for really fast readers. An audiobook, at non chipmunk speed, goes by at about 150-160 words per minute (wpm). The average reader reads words on a page at about 300 wpm. Very fast readers, so I understand, read by looking at the text more as a whole – and then by pulling together all the threads to form a narrative. In other words, very fast readers are less linear in their reading. According to one source I found, the average college professor reads at about 675 wpm, and true speed reader can read at about 1,500 wpm.

If you are a nonlinear reader, and your brain requires a very high throughput of information to stay happy, then an audiobook probably will not work for you.  The audiobook information delivery is too linear and too slow.

I think he’s right. This would explain why I can’t get into audiobooks, and it would also explain why I don’t listen to podcasts.

To put it simply, people talk too slow. It’s not just the pauses for effect or breathing, but simply that people can’t talk as fast as I can process information. It’s why I can’t stand podcasts (and can barely tolerate informational videos), and it also explains the requests for text summaries of podcasts.

Yes, there are platforms which let you control the playback speed but that still doesn’t come close to matching my reading speed.

I’m betting that if you listen to audiobooks or podcasts then you probably do so while busy with another activity: driving to work, perhaps, or exercising.

Am I wrong?

And while we’re on the topic, how fast do you read? (you can check your reading speed here)

image by meddygarnet

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Jonathan Mattson June 8, 2015 um 11:47 am

I would agree that audiobooks are too slow. But they are very useful when you are driving, cooking, and taking care of the yard.

To me where its really noticable is if you try the immersion reading on thefire tablets. I’ve tried it a few times when i’ve owned both the audio and the kindle book, but it’s so frustrating because I don’t wait for the narration instead i end up reading ahead of it. So you end up hearing things you’ve already read and I think that means you lose any slight benefits you may have received off the reading and listening together. (Although being able to listen to the book and seamlessly sync to the kindle when your ready to read is very handy.)

Patricia Lenhart June 8, 2015 um 1:46 pm

That makes a lot of sense. I had an 8th grade teacher who taught us speed reading and even though I don’t speed read, I’m still faster than the average reader. I can’t stand being read to, instructional videos or books on tape.

Maria (BearMountainBooks) June 8, 2015 um 2:23 pm

They are far too slow. I do sometimes speed them up and only listen to them on long car trips. They are not fast enough/compelling enough even when I’m just doing housework. If I’m stuck in a car and the book is funny or fast-paced, I can usually listen to one, but yes. It’s hard to process such a slow stream of information without getting completely bored. It’s usually more fun for me to listen to music.

1 June 8, 2015 um 3:28 pm

I only play audio books using apps that let me change the speed.
I find I can’t stand listening to audio books at the normal speed.
I wish I could as I would like to be able to use Scribd and Hoopla (these companies force you to use their own apps that don’t support changing the speed).

Tyler June 8, 2015 um 4:04 pm

I have an hour and fifteen minutes commute so I listen to really long audio books that I would not want to read. I don’t mind the speed of the narrator. I just wouldn’t listen to books at home where I would rather read them.

Castiron June 8, 2015 um 6:26 pm

I’m a fast reader (though the Staples link claims I read at over a thousand words a minute, which I don’t buy). I like several podcasts, and unlike the people in Kim’s (admittedly tiny) sample, I happily read ebooks. I’m not strongly interested in audiobooks, though; the only one I’ve really listened to is Patrick Stewart’s version of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. The podcasts I listen to are short enough that I can finish one over my day’s commute or on a long enough walk, and if I’m distracted for a minute and have to tune it out, I don’t *have* to rewind to not be lost for the rest of the podcast.

LoganK June 8, 2015 um 8:00 pm

I’m not a fast reader like most of the others here: I effectively read with the voice in my head. That being said, traditional speech and narration is generally far slower than my eyeball pace. Fortunately, I have both a Podcast application and an audiobook application that perform excellent speed-up (usually 1.5x or a little faster). When you combine my audible reading activities (driving, chores) with my available mental bandwidth while multitasking, it works out just about perfect.

Minor note: Audible’s last update finally, after many years, fixed the glitch in their Android application that skipped forward following a pause during increased playback speed. (It was, frankly, an embarrassing bug.) 1.5x narration is still labeled 2x because, I would guess, "math is hard", but the overall look is much improved, too.

Al the Great and Powerful June 8, 2015 um 10:29 pm

Oh god yes. I have to do an 8-hour online course every year and they read the material to you and its just. so. slow.

I liked audiobooks when I had a long drive (long enough to finish it). Now I walk and its just not long enough and demands more attention to surroundings (when I’m driving we’re all going one direction in our own lanes, afoot people do every sort of stupid move without thinking about how it will affect other walkers…).

Medium Punch June 9, 2015 um 1:09 am

Awww, I’m only above average. =/

Yet I always read in a linear fashion with a story driven piece like the ones given in the test.

But as someone who read to others and plans to do more voice over/audio narration stuff on the side, I’ll try to keep everyone’s comments in mind with my own speaking speed. I’ll admit there are some readers out there that do annoy me with their slow reading speed, or even worse, read at a monotonous pace in spite of how the text is written (e.g. changes in sentence length).

Daniel June 9, 2015 um 1:41 am

Definitely to slow to listen to. I actually do the same with most movies and TV-shows. I always watch with English subs so that I can speed up playback to double speed which lets me keep subs and audio (although I have to use my headphones in order to not drive my wife to madness). Unfortunately my media player can only handle this at double speed, any faster and I lose both subs and audio.

Name (required) June 9, 2015 um 2:34 am

I think you have a typo in the article
"To put it simply, people talk to slow."
Should be
"To put it simply, people talk too slow."
I think.

I am a fast reader. I can’t stand audiobooks.
I did get an audiobook once, when I couldn’t get an e-book nor paper book of a long anticipated book that I desperately wanted to read as soon as possible.

I do not think my dislike was because of speed. I found out that I have to focus on the e-book really, really hard, so it was difficult for me to do other than really simple tasks. I thought that this was because English is not my first or second language, but I had several discussions and I found out that [some] native English speakers have to concentrate really hard when listening to an audiobook.

The only moment when I liked listening to an audiobook (legally downloaded for free from the net) was when I injured my eye and doctor told me not to watch TV, not to work on computer and not to read – because as you move your "good" eye the injured one moves with it and it wasn’t helping it. So I had to lie down for a couple of days with my eyes closed and I had no problem concentrating on an audiobook.

Nate Hoffelder June 9, 2015 um 5:57 am

Fixed it, thanks. (Luckily I did not make the same mistake in the title.)

Tom Semple June 9, 2015 um 4:17 am

I spend a lot of time driving so audiobooks are a way of life for me. But I never, ever listen to them at 1x speed. Usually it is 2x, but it depends on the reader and whether I can interpret their voices at that speed. Sometimes a little slower, sometimes as much as 3x. After awhile the faster speed sounds 'normal'. So while it is slower than I typically read text, it is not as slow as some might assume (I’m not a speed reader, and am skeptical about the usefulness of training for speed, particularly for works of imagination or any material which requires thought and reflection).

I think that people who have 'tried and not liked it' have not really given it a chance. Listening attentively is a skill, and one has to put in many hours (several hundred I would say) before it becomes easier to maintain focus, to be able to handle faster playback and to develop an appreciation of a given performance. As with acting, someone may be 'mis-cast' for the material at hand, but I generally find the quality control to be good, and different readers specialize in different materials. A good performance can really bring out nuances that can escape me when it is just me reading silently. For fiction especially, it is an acting job, and film and tv actors often make superb readers, and familiar voices can draw you in more quickly.

I find the Audible player reasonably good and do use 'whispersync for voice' and 'immersion reading' a lot. But I think audiobooks could benefit from an 'xray' feature (list of names, places, terms mentioned in current chapter, etc, with ability to jump to references within the audiobook) as well as 'real chapter titles' for improved navigation (instead of 'chapter 1, chapter 2, chapter 3') so that it is easier to establish and maintain context, regardless of what material is involved.

I enjoy both forms of reading, for me they are complementary and having both available expands available reading time, which is a good thing.

Frank June 9, 2015 um 9:53 am

At normal speed audiobooks are too slow but once they are speed up, which any good app can do, it is fine.

mike June 9, 2015 um 10:04 am

You can just speed up narration to 1.5x or even 2x if you use an app like Audible. Currently I’m at 1.25x only, but have sometimes gone up to 1.5x or 2x

Mary June 9, 2015 um 11:48 am

Well, yes, I am a very fast reader. However, when an audiobook is good, (e.g. Terry Pratchett’s Guards! Guards!) I want to hear it with all its nuances, not speeded up just to shovel in the words faster. Obviously this relates to motivation. Absorbing content is not my main motivation so much as enjoying it while I am listening. MostIy I listen in the car or when working in the kitchen, but occasionally to rest my eyes from books, I will sit and listen with my eyes closed. There are books superbly done in audio, and others I would rather read. Sometimes it is hard to know right away if the audio is going to be a bomb or not.

Becki June 9, 2015 um 2:11 pm

I don’t listen to audio books because most of the titles I’ve tried put me to sleep. (Fell asleep in the bath tub once listening to a story I really liked; the narrator’s voice just lulled me right out!) I don’t know if it was the speed of their voice that made me so sleepy, or something else. In the car is even worse. The only time I can listen to an audio book now is if it’s loaded on my MP3 player and I listen while walking. Hard to fall asleep on my feet. 🙂

Verena June 9, 2015 um 5:04 pm

I love my audiobooks, and listen almost daily. I’ll increase the speed if the narrator is speaking particularly slowly or has an annoying voice. I listen when jogging, doing housework, driving, etc.

J September 12, 2015 um 12:00 pm

I agree, and worse I start to feel hazy and unfocused and eventually fall asleep. Not for the serious reader.

John Stanton September 13, 2015 um 9:29 am

I listen to mp3 audio books I download from my library and transfer to my SanDisk clip +. Clip plus does not have a clock so they remain there. I use a double male jack to connect my car radio.

Bridget McKenna September 23, 2015 um 4:36 pm

I’m a fast reader, which is WHY I like audiobooks. They make me slow down and enjoy the experience of the story without the temptation to plunge ahead and skim entire paragraphs. With an audiobook, I have to experience the story at the pace of the narrator, which I find relaxing. What I don’t find relaxing is speeding up the narration.

Jason November 3, 2015 um 8:29 am

I am not a fast or strong reader….I love audiobooks. I like them while walking or listening to them in bed to relax.

When I was in law school I could easily understand why someone would want to speed read or consume information quicker. But I don’t get why one would want to speed read or quickly read through a book for entertainment. I would only read in a non-linear fashion for info…it’s insane to me that people would do this for enjoyment. I could read a book and explain every detail to a person in cliff notes so the person knows all the details of the book including the big picture themes…but they will have entirely missed journey. Comprehension in and of itself does not equal reading (or listening to an audiobook).

The "extra" time is where you contemplate the text. We apply the story to our own lives, think about the characters and learn something beyond the black and white text. If you spend your whole life thinking faster = better this will be hard to accept. Think about the Neverending Story and how the boy becomes part of the story…now ask yourself whether the boy would have become part of the story if he read 1200+ words a minute and read in a non-linear fashion.

H B November 15, 2015 um 11:58 am

Definitely. I am a linear reader and do not rush through stories (Staples test 388), but audiobooks can still drive me mad because they are so slow. I do listen in the car, but switch to text versions when not traveling.

The main reason I always switch isn’t the speed however. I just tend to like the characterizations and delivery in my head better. And what really makes me want to pull my hair out is the characterization of female voices. Who really thinks women talk in that soft, squishy over-kind way? It gives me the shivers! Please, if you are a voice artist, try to give your female characters an edge. I can’t listen to any more characters sounding like love-sick teenagers on valium.

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Jurijs Nekrasovs May 11, 2019 um 8:21 am

On my phone I just get e-books and run them through TTS in my reader (CoolReader). Unlike listening to audio books, you can change the speed and don’t have them sound like chipmunks.

CJ January 28, 2020 um 3:45 am

I do the opposite. Particularly due to multiple burnouts and reduced mental throughput as a result.

I slow down and reduce the energy of the audiobooks and is anti-busyiness.

Love slow audiobooks, particularly to sleep to on snooze timer.

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