The problem with audiobooks

Audiobooks are, for most of us, a multitasking tool to squeeze reading (or the perception thereof) into our busy days. It might be a step up from mindlessly browsing Netflix or going down a YouTube rabbit hole but for most of us, audiobooks are just another form of unengaged consumption.

A few days ago, I canceled my Audible membership, a membership that I'd cherished for years.

Thanks for being a listener since: 02-14-2012

When I found this date in my Audible account, I was surprised by how long Audible had been part of my life. Audiobooks had been part of my life for much longer than that. When I was young, I listened to Das Doppelte Lottchen  (Lottie and Lisa) on my record player. Later, I didn't have much choice other than to listen to my sister's endless replays of Benjamin Blümchen and Bibi Blocksberg, two German children's book series, on her cassette player in our shared room at my mom's house.

Falling asleep to audiobooks had been trained into my brain over the years. Throughout my teenage years, I couldn't fall asleep without a calm voice reading a story. Most of the time, I chose the same books over and over. The reliability and familiarity of the stories I had long memorized most efficiently brought me to sleep. I'd like to say that I grew out of this habit but it wasn't until this year that I stopped listening to audio books to fall asleep. Sure, I experimented with falling-asleep meditations in between but I was usually wide awake by the end of them and turned on Harry Potter afterward nonetheless.

On days when I didn't feel like dealing with the world, I'd listen to more of Harry's adventures while doing whatever I needed to do—the familiar story that I could always rely on to calm me down. For years, Harry Potter was my therapy, a trusted companion who was always there to pull me out of reality.

I'd listen to the books while doing the dishes, while driving, while grocery shopping, while running errands, while cleaning the bathroom, while... while doing anything that didn't require my full attention or occupy my ears. During tough times, I'd go through the audiobook series multiple times in a month.

If I wasn't caught up in never-ending reruns of the heptalogy, I listened to non-fiction. Similarly obsessed, I'd consume one audiobook after the other, trying to fill my brain with knowledge. Nothing ever stuck.

The biggest benefit of audiobooks is also their inherent flaw: You can do something else while you listen to them. Multitasking while "reading" becomes the default. Even if it's supposedly mindless tasks like driving or doing the dishes, you only dedicate some part of your brain power to the audiobook. And even if you manage to comprehend and understand everything the narrator tells you, there is no interaction. There are no notes, no highlights. And usually, even if there is something you want to write down and remember, your hands are occupied and you can't get to your phone or a notebook to act on that impulse.

The thing I remember about most audiobooks I consumed is that they were really inspiring and that there was such good information in there. Ask me what any of those books are about and I probably have a one-sentence summary that the asker could've derived from the title or, if I'm lucky, a very vague idea of the topic of the book.

A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon Lost Connection by Johan Hari. I had read it before. Well, consumed. I'd listened to the audiobook before. When we lived in New Zealand, I'd listen to the book while on walks with Pepper or while dealing with whatever had to be done around the house. Re-reading felt like reading a book where I'd seen a TED talk or a review before. Some of the stories or major points felt familiar. Most of it was completely forgotten. It was eye-opening. Until then, I'd thought that I was actually getting something out of my audiobook binges. But the only thing I was getting was noise, distraction, something to keep my mind away from the thoughts I didn't want to surface.

This summer, on the train ride to visit my mom, I listened to Atomic Habits. The only thing I remember is the feeling the book left me with. I don't remember a single point he made. I've since added the book to my reading list again, as I have no fucking clue what the book is about. To be honest, I don't even know if the book is any good. I guess, I'll find out when I actually read it.

But what if we consume audiobooks without distraction? What if we sit down and essentially do what we did as children: listen to someone read out a book to us?

I'm not sure if it's my habit of falling asleep to audiobooks or if it is something that is common: I can't just listen to an audiobook. Unavoidably, after a while, I fall asleep.

Thinking about this more, I realize that it's likely not something that I trained myself on but rather something that is common to all of us. Parents (at least the caring ones) read stories to their children to fall asleep. If they read to them during the day, it usually looks much different: the child sits on their lap or cuddles up next to them and they interact with the book, point at the pictures. And even then, a lot of times, if the child is tired, it'll fall asleep right there, rendering the parent incapable of moving for a while without waking up a sleeping child.

The biggest advantage of audiobooks, the ability to do something else while we listen to them, is their biggest flaw. Consuming a book this way does not render the same benefits as reading a book.

Kate Hildenbrand

Kate Hildenbrand

Kate Hildenbrand is the writer behind the essays here, author of fiction novels, the creator of the Kate Hildenbrand podcast, and a student of marine ecology. At least, that's her on the surface.