Audiobook listening as scholarship

Over the last year I find myself listening to academic works in audiobook with ever greater frequency. In part this reflects the screen fatigue which the pandemic has provoked. It’s just pleasant to go from looking at a screen to listening under these conditions. It’s also enjoyable to multitask, as I find I’m sometimes very attentive to an audiobook when doing mundane tasks (e.g. tidying, washing, vaccing) or when walking around. At its best I’m attending to the book while doing something else before something grabs my attention and I either write notes or make a brief task on Omnifocus to write about what I’ve just heard. When I’m engaged like this I’m always ruminating about what I’m listening to before intermittently responding to it as well.

The problem is that I’m not always engaged like this. I sometimes lose track of what I’m listening to, I start thinking over it in a way which almost drowns out the track. I might make a note to follow up a point from the audiobook but I don’t get to it for days by which point the intellectual urge has vanished and I can’t remember why I thought this was important. In this sense audiobooks seem like a more unreliable form of engagement. Part of the appeal is that it takes less mental energy but this in turn means it’s easier to fade in and out of attentiveness. The reliance on another medium in another application (text in my Omnifocus, blog or roam) is also unsatisfying as it creates a rupture between listening to the audiobook and engaging with its contents.

However I wonder if it can support more mindful reading, in which I focus my energy on things which benefit from being read. I consume a lot of business books on tech firms for which it’s not hugely important that I engage closely as I read them for factual background. I make notes when it’s something I might cite in work or need to dwell on but otherwise it’s contextual reading. It feels positive to shift these texts to audiobook.

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