Audiobooks and the psychology of listening

Although I’ve always listened to the radio, it took me a while to adjust my listening skills to really appreciate the value of audiobooks. I only started using audiobooks during the Covid pandemic, when so much of what we were used to shifted and we had to find alternatives. I was a regular user of my local library, and when everything shut down, I was truly lost as to how I would access all the books I wanted to read. I appreciate the option of buying books was still available, but that’s not always my go-to, I like to borrow books and support my local library, and if I fall in love with the book, then I buy it.

I’ve listened to almost all Curtis Sittenfeld’s books as audiobooks and loved everyone of them.

My local libraries catalogue is available online, but I only used it to reserve books. Then, one day as I was renewing my children’s books, I noticed the ebook/audiobook section of the website and, as they say, the rest is history. Its particularly embarrassing because I was a librarian and have worked with e and audiobook suppliers! I was a big user of my Kindle in my younger days, but I very rarely use it now, I much prefer to read physical books. I borrowed a few audiobooks (my local library had quite a good selection) and tried listening to to them throughout my day. Initially it was a bit of a fail. I couldn’t concentrate and found myself getting frustrated at continuously rewinding and losing the thread of the book, which completely ruined the experience for me. For example, if I was cooking, I’d get my mucky hands on my phone, the app would only allow me to go back by 30seconds at a time or by a whole chapter. The tracks weren’t named, just numbered, so the whole process was further complicated if I skipped too far back, or pressed the wrong thing and ended up losing my position. I was on the cusp of giving up on them altogether when I decided to give audiobooks one final chance.

I borrowed The Handmaids Tale from my local library, a book I had read many years earlier, but I wanted to refresh my memory on, before starting The Testaments, its sequel. I noticed that the only time I could really enjoy my audiobooks was when I was running, with my headphones. I had no distractions and the sound was perfect. So I tried to replicate these conditions when I was listening at home. The first thing I did was buy myself a portable speaker. I usually listen on my phone and the speakers aren’t ideal, especially given that I share my space with three children, who can really amp up their volume. That’s not to suggest I listen at an obnoxiously high volume, although my partner might think so, its just set perfectly so that I don’t have to strain to hear, if I switch on a tap for instance. The other thing I did was realise when I can and when I can’t listen to a book. Much like reading a physical book, I needed to listen at a time that I could concentrate. One of the USP of an audiobook is that you can multitask, however multitasking is a skill that has to be learnt, especially with regards to listening.

Eating, listening and puzzling. A life well lived!

According to a survey, in Psychology Today, 96% of us think we are good listeners but in reality we only retain about half of what others say to us. This is because while “listening” we are also formulating our responses, making assumptions or distracted by something else altogether. This can also be applied when listening to an audiobook. For example, when I’m reading a physical book, my eyes and my mind are engaged with what’s happening on the page. If I get interrupted, I have to put my book down, because I can’t carry on reading while engaging in a conversation. When listening to something, its much easier to be distracted, by our own thoughts as well as external diversions. I’ve really had to coach myself to actively listen to audiobooks so that I can do an activity (solo, you can’t listen to something with others around, unless you use headphones) such as gardening, cooking and cleaning simultaneously. And even with things like cooking, I can’t follow a new recipe while listening, because I need to stop and read instructions, and my mind just can’t do the two things concurrently.

Really listening to audibooks can be such a sensory experience, almost like being in a theatre where the stage is your imagination. I’ve noticed that newer audiobooks are performed and not simply read, and its such a pleasurable experience that you really don’t want distractions. Active listening in our lives helps us be more respectful, gain more knowledge and understanding as well as build better relationships. I think all these principles can also be applied to being better readers.

More recently I’ve started to take notes, particularly when listening to nonfiction, or books I want to review, and then I have to literally separate myself from everything and I’m constantly hitting the pause button to make notes. I’m old school and use pen and paper. It really heightens my experience of reading. That’s not to say that is the only way to listen. I’m currently listening to the latest instalment of Richard Osman’s Thursday Murder Club, The Bullet That Missed, while doing a jigsaw puzzle, I feel like I’m in my chrysalis of happiness, engaged in two of my favourite hobbies, reading and puzzles.

Spatiality of sound is among the most subtle and refined information that we are able to perceive. It is a driver for highly complex neural processing, interaction between the left and right hemispheres of the brain and coordination of the neuro-motoric system of the body, directly affecting the regulation of muscle activity, balance and posture (The Ear and the Voice, Tomatis 1988). The entire body is involved in the process of listening that ultimately leads to the conscious perception of sound and its spatial characteristics.” Physiology and Psychology Of Listening

One of my favourite books of 2022.

My experience of audiobooks is from a place of privilege, I don’t have any visual impairments that make reading books difficult for me. For some people audiobooks are the only way they can access literature and learning. Therefore it is important to recognise the vital role audiobooks play in our community, especially given how people still don’t consider listening to books to be the equivalent of ‘reading’. For me, reading is a verb, an action, it doesn’t have to be sitting down with a physical book, its the state of engaging with the words, however readers feel comfortable doing so. I highlight this because for many audiobooks are their only option, yet they are desperately expensive. For example, the hardback version of The Bullet That Missed is available from £10 at various bookshops as is the ebook. The audio version of the book is £27.99! When I tried to reserve it from my local library it is reserved until 28th of March 2023. Firstly I hope that readers with visual impairments get priority in this system, but secondly I think all readers should make a point of using their local libraries and borrowing audiobooks. Hopefully as the demands go up, the price will come down, and libraries will be able to afford more audiobooks, including multiple copies of the same title.

My children love to listen to audiobooks

Finally, I wanted to mention that children’s books are also available as audiobooks. My children love listening to the books they download from our library. Currently they have a whole selection, from Spiderman to Blue Planet, and its really interesting for me observing them listen to their books rather than watching TV. I recommend it to all parents.

Let me know if you listen to audiobooks and if so what you are currently listening too.


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