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[Articles & Opinions] Listen up: why we can't get enough of audiobooks.

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In this time-poor, podcast-friendly world, audiobooks are booming. So what is the science behind them – and do they change our relationship with the written word?
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Illustration: Christophe Gowans/The Guardian
▼ Are audiobooks the new… books? It was recently revealed that audiobook sales rocketed by 43% in 2018, while those of print books declined (by 5%) for the first time in five years. Can people no longer be bothered to read for themselves? Is this, rather than the ebook, the harbinger of the slow death of print, about which we have been warned for so long? And if so, what does that mean for literary culture? Let us first retain some historical perspective by noting that Homer’sIliadwas essentially an audiobook before it was ever written down. Oral literary culture long precedes the book and there are many reasons for its rising popularity. Some people I spoke to use audiobooks to send them to sleep after a stressful professional day; others listen while walking, or looking after a baby, or as an alternative to TV. Parents say they are great for keeping children occupied in the car, and commuters use them on their journeys. The time-pressed listen at 1.5x or 2x normal speed, or use websites such as Blinkist, which boil down non-fiction books to their “key takeaways” in 15 minutes. One writer told me that he gets audiobooks “for research into stuff that I fear my pleasure-seeking brain would give up on if I had to read with my eyes”.
It may be that an actor’s voice can provide musical information that helps longer-term recall, just as the visual information of a book can
But is there really a measurable difference between reading with the eyes and “reading” with the ears? According to an oft-cited 2016 study ( Beth A Rogowsky et  al), 91 subjects were found to display no significant difference in either comprehension or recall after two weeks whether they had read a non‑fiction passage or listened to it, or done both simultaneously. However, this investigation used ebooks for the reading part, and other studies have suggested that reading comprehension and recall is lower for reading on screens versus print. Since the 1980s, cognitive psychology has consistently established that recall is indeed better after reading (printed) text instead of listening to it, a conclusion bolstered by a 2010 study ( David B Daniel and William Douglas  Woody), which found that students did worse on a test if they had listened to a podcast of a scientific article on child cognition rather than reading it.
Books have the advantage that you can rapidly re‑scan a sentence visually if you didn’t take it in the first time; and you can mark passages in pencil or turn down page corners to mark specific places to return to. Audiobooks, by contrast, exploit our “echoic memory”, which is the process by which sound information is stored for up to four seconds while we wait for the next sounds to make sense of the whole. Nor can audiobooks reproduce one of the most thrilling features of print, which is its creative ambiguity: the line of poetry, or the sentence, that is exquisitely balanced between two possible meanings. The actor in the studio has to choose just one, and that is the one that is forced on the reader. In their favour, it might be that the particular cadences and timbre of an actor’s voice in audiobooks provide musical information that helps longer-term recall, just as the visual and tactile information of where a passage lies in a printed book can.
That voice is everything, says Jennifer Howard, founding director of the boutique audio studio Sound Understanding, whose recent productions include Samuel West reading astronomer royal Martin Rees’sOn the Futurefor Princeton University Press. “Casting the right voice is crucial,” she says. “Get it wrong and you can really turn the listener off.” And non-fiction is even more (▪ ▪ ▪)

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