Speeding kills

Ten days ago Quartz published a piece associating America’s “unhealthy obsession with productivity with the rise in audiobook publishing and market popularity. The article puts forward relatively ancient survey data, claiming that the 2006 Audio Publishers Association’s consumer survey is the latest. It’s not and a very quick search of the same site the author used to locate this report leads to 2012 survey results, posted in 2013, and a n online search that takes all of one minute longer leads directly to the Edison Research audiobook consumer research report of 2016.

That not-minor quibble aside, the Quartz writer goes on to characterize audiobook readers as “book lovers in a hurry” and notes the availability of proprietary technologies that “speed listen,” altering the audiobook’s playback by eliminating intentional pauses in the performance’s recording and even tripling the speed of the cadences chosen by narrators and directors. At this point, the writer is no longer really discussing audiobook listening; instead, the subject is the avoidance of listening, and, thereby, the avoidance of actually falling into the audiobook.

Like speed reading, speed listening presents a false sense of accomplishment: exposure to the content that, due to limiting that exposure to less-than-natural pacing, poses deleterious effects to comprehension, retention, and, yes, even enjoyment of what is being consumed. Too busy to pay attention to what you’re reading either visually or aurally? Then own up to that and either make time, if you really want to read something, or consume content that really doesn’t need your attention and won’t exhaust you from the effort of trying to run away from what you ostensibly are trying to visit. (What would that be, if the end goal, per the Quartz article writer, is a sense of accomplished productivity? Perhaps simply doing a better, more complete job of whatever the main thing in front of one is, that project for which this false “listening” is employed as backdrop?)

Reading is the act of visiting another’s words. It requires some body part on the reader’s part—whether eyes, ears, or in the case of the now disappearing genius of Braille, fingers. It also requires some mental engagement, whether intellectual or aesthetic. Too busy to pay attention to what someone else is saying? Maybe practicing the fine art of listening is in order, rather than assuming a hurried passage away from engagement is somehow productive use of time. If productivity is the most important activity in one’s life, then at least take some time to listen to yourself, rather than cluttering every moment with missed connections in which speeding results.

Audiobook listening is reading. Reading is a productive activity in its own right.