How do you listen to audiobooks in a scholarly way?

I wrote a few months ago about what the LSE Impact Blog catchily termed ‘the audible university‘ which is to say the growing role of listening within a post-pandemic university where screen fatigue is rife. This has become an increasingly central part of my own research practice as I use audiobooks in a number of ways to supplement my reading.

Firstly, I use them to skim through material which I’d like to get a broad sense of without caring about the details. I find audiobooks perfect for this as background listening which I tune in and out of throughout the text. It’s certainly a shallow form of reading but it enables me to engage with a wider range of books given the time available to me, as well as frees up my reading time for texts engagement with which actually benefit from the affordances of the codex book, such as theoretical work where I’m likely to make a lot of annotations. Secondly, I use them to engage with things I find interesting but which in practice I’d struggle to make time for given the other demands on my time. For example I love reading books about contemporary politics and find them easy to digest audibly but the time it takes to read them used to cut into things which I value more. Thirdly, I use them to expand my engagement with wider non-academic debates which are relevant to my work, such business debates about remote working. Fourthly, I use them to listen to things which have explicitly practical implications (such as Mark Reed’s book The Productive Researcher) which for some reason I find much easier to focus on through listening than reading. Fifthly, there are those texts I was really supposed to read but never got round to finishing, such as Surveillance Capitalism. In practice there’s often some overlap between these categories but many of the audiobooks I’ve listened to recently fall into a single category.

Taken together these categories represent a listening patterns which is distinctively different from my reading pattern. It involves a greater range of books, some of which I would choose not to read and the level of attention I’m paying to them varies from things I’m listening to intensely to those which I’m only attending to intermittently. For this reason I think it’s important to avoid positing audiobooks as a replacement for the codex book, either in the techno-optimistic sense that they’re a superior mode of engagement or the more pessimistic sense that no one in academia has time to read any more so this is the best that we can hope for.

I think the interesting questions about audiobooks (as with other forms of digital scholarship) involve how expanding our scholarly repertoire can lead to overall changes in our scholarship which are helpful. I think the interesting questions about audiobooks (as with other forms of digital scholarship) involve how expanding our scholarly repertoire can lead to overall changes in our scholarship which are helpful. There are structural pressures which are driving a turn towards audio (commuting, multitasking as a solution to time pressure, screen fatigue, over supply of audio as techno-capital seeks the next big thing) but we shouldn’t overstate them. It’s possible for this to be a gradual drift in which the habitual practices of academics shift in response to pressures which rarely reach the level of reflection, remaining as mundane decisions which ossify into habits.

If this happens there’s a risk that listening does displace reading to some extent in ways that could be harmful because there are clearly potential limitations too ow we listen vis-a-vis how we read, particularly if this is a matter of having an audiobook on in the background when doing something else. I think Digital Scholarship is crucial because it encourages reflective practice at the individual level but also collective conversations about how we experience and respond to these factors which lead to changes in our practice. I often think of this in terms of building a user culture which is adequate to the technologies we’re using: a way of thinking and talking about the use of the technology which helps us articulate the ends to which we might use it, recognising the pitfalls involved and finding ways to avoid them (and the positive corollary of the constructive uses to which we can put it).

For this reason I’d encourage you to read this thoughtful reflection by Dave Beer about the process of reviewing an audiobook. He talks about the “different kind of concentration” required to engage with an audiobook (in contrast to the easy distraction with which many of us consumed podcasts) and the difficulties involved in quoting from it. He talks about the former as a “focal point for exercising the analytical imagination” and the latter as a “soothing background presence”. I think these are useful terms for thinking about the range of ways with which we can engage with audio content. While the quality of my reading varies depending on what I’m reading, there’s a sense in which I’m either reading it or not reading it. In contrast I think there’s a wide range of ways in which I engage with audio. Recognising this diversity in our own practice is an important first step if we want to engage constructively with the possibilities for audio scholarship.

2 thoughts on “How do you listen to audiobooks in a scholarly way?”

  1. Concentration has a lot of relevance to how much attention the mind can keep on the content. Loud noisy environments with interrupts are terrible for audiobooks because concentration is spent on the noise. Worse, sometimes loud enough noise can distract the mind.

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