Are Smart Audiobooks a Waste of Time?

I’ve encountered some intelligent people who seem to think that audiobooks are good for mindless fiction, light entertainment, but not much else. “There’s no point reading intellectual books as audiobooks. You can’t get anything out of it.” I disagree.

I recognize that reading a paper copy of a book can have some real advantages for reading difficult, intellectual prose. If you’re standing at the sink washing dishes and listening to an audiobook, you can’t make notes in the margins. You can’t easily stop and reread a sentence more slowly. You can’t flip back to an earlier passage from several pages back and compare the two. Probably it’s not even convenient to pause reading the book and ponder what has just been said. So, no doubt, there are limitations.

There are, however, also some small advantages. For one thing, it makes it easier to get through a large piece of text at a consistent rate, which offers a better sense of the proportion of its parts, and allows a better sense of the overall structure and framework. A good narrator can also help difficult sentences come together in a meaningful way.

Sometimes audiobooks are a good way to revisit texts previously read on paper. I have difficulty listening to sections of Plotinus that are unfamiliar to me, but to hear them after having puzzled through them is a pleasure.

Let’s keep in mind that these folks who disparage intelligent audiobooks apparently think that Socrates’ listeners weren’t able to learn philosophy from him through their ears, nor the students of Aristotle, Plotinus, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Leo Strauss or any of a very long list of great minds in between.

But the most important point is, you can’t really compare the two, audiobooks and paper books. Remember that in our example, we were listening to the audiobook while doing a chore. You wouldn’t have been reading a physical book while cleaning the kitchen either way.

So then the real question is, do you want to listen to smart books in moments you wouldn’t have been able to sit down and read those same books? Or would you rather be doing something else altogether in those moments, and miss the opportunity entirely?

To me, it’s an easy choice.

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