Reading With My Eyes and Ears At The Same Time

by James Wallace Harris, 8/26/22

I’ve recently learned why it’s best to read with my eyes and ears concurrently.

When I joined in 2002 it changed my reading life in several ways. First, it made me discover several things about my reading abilities. I always thought I was a great reader. I thought that because I was a bookworm. Listening showed me that was a delusion. I was really skimming books because I was reading too fast. Listening revealed that my inner reading voice was crappy at best. Listening made it all too obvious that there were nuances to fiction and nonfiction that I was completely missing.

When you listen to a professional narrator read a book you often get to experience the book at its best. Usually, the words are pronounced correctly, and the dialog comes across naturally, at a speed at which you’d hear it in real life. This enhances the dramatic effects of fiction, but it also has a cognitive impact on nonfiction.

I suppose good readers do all this in their heads, but I didn’t. I read to find out what happens. I did not savor the words or the writing. As a reader growing up I conditioned myself to read books with fast action prose. Either for fiction or nonfiction. I mainly stuck to science fiction and popular science books.

When I started listening I quickly learned I could handle other kinds of prose – especially longer, and denser books. For example, I listened to Moby Dick, not an easy novel. Listening opened up the 19th century to me. I never had the patience for old classics, but once I started listening I got into Dickens, Austen, Trollope, Elliot, and even Henry James. I also got into all kinds of nonfiction, including dry academic works, because hearing made them more interesting and accessible.

Over time listening helped me to read better with my eyes. Listening taught me to read slowly, and that made a big difference. I would switch back and forth depending on what format was the cheapest to buy.

However, there are still books I couldn’t get into – like Downbelow Station by C. J. Cherry. Her dense prose makes my eyes glaze over when I try to read that novel, and my ears tune out when listening. Because it’s one of a handful of novels I haven’t read on the Classics of Science Fiction list, I’ve been pushing myself to finish it. And I’ve learned a trick that will help me.

I can only listen to books if I’m doing something else, like walking, doing the dishes, eating, exercising, etc. I had to give up walking, and because of my back problems, I’ve been exercising less. That’s cut into my listening time. If I try to listen while just sitting I fall asleep.

However, I’ve found a trick to beat that. I listen to an audiobook while reading the book with my eyes. Not only do I stay awake, but I retain what I read better. That’s always been one of the drawbacks of listening to books. I don’t retain them as well when I read with my ears. I don’t get into them as well when I read with my eyes.

When I read with my eyes and ears at the same time I get into the most and retain the most. And it turns out, it lets me read some books like Downbelow Station that I previously couldn’t read with just my eyes or just my ears.

Isn’t that weird?

The trick is to follow along with the words as I hear them – and don’t let myself get distracted.

I listened to Susan Wise Bauer’s The History of the Ancient World and The History of the Medieval World but started listening and reading The History of the Renaissance World. I’m getting so much more out of this dual-reading method, especially retention, that I’m thinking about rereading the first two volumes with the new method.

There is a major drawback to dual reading – cost. I do subscribe to and they sometimes have both the ebook and the audiobook. They had the recent biography on Buckminister Fuller that I listened to on audiobook so I just had to buy the Kindle edition. With Downbelow Station I had the paperback I’ve been meaning to read for years, and I’ve had the audiobook I’ve been meaning to listen to for years. And sometimes Amazon will give you a deal on the audiobook if you buy the Kindle edition first. Sometimes I get the Kindle on sale for $1.99 from Bookbub announcements and then buy the audiobook. Or I buy a used copy of the book or get it from the library.

I’m not going to read every book with my eyes and ears. But for books that I want to study, or total grok, or can’t get into, I will try the dual reading method.


15 thoughts on “Reading With My Eyes and Ears At The Same Time”

  1. I think you have made a breakthrough here. Exciting! I wonder what a neurologist would say about your insights into reading with the ears for appreciation, eyes for retention?

  2. Well, I am here to eat some humble pie. For many years I sneered at listening to audio books – it’s not reading, I would say, or reading is not and never will be an aural experience, or reading is a singular transcendence that can only be experienced in the pages of a book.

    Then my aging eyes forced me to the only alternative. I could no longer read in bed into the wee hours. No matter how much I wanted to keep reading a compelling book, my eyes stopped me. So I tried Scribd on your recommendation and quickly became a convert.

    I now subscribe to Scribd and Audible. And I frequently do the same thing you do – listen and read the book at the same time. And I’ve found that for many excellent books that I’ve read in the past and loved, listening adds a new kind of richness. One of the first books I listened to was The Remains of the Day. I had read the book years before and loved it. I like to re-read books, letting time pass, then reading again to see how I’ve changed as a reader or if the book stands up to the test of time. I was so surprised at how moving the narration was. I knew the story, the characters, what to expect at the end, but the emotion transmuted by a human voice added something, something that was not on the page. I’m a believer.

    1. I love to reread books. I love to listen to books I’ve read and reread. I like going back and forth between reading and listening. With a good book, I just keep finding more to appreciate. I recently reread a childhood favorite, Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein which I discussed on my science fiction blog. I know I’ve read it three times since 1989 because of my reading log, and I’m positive I’ve read it at least twice before 1989, so five times at a minimum.

      Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein

      I’ve only read two books by Ishiguro, and I haven’t read Remains of the Day. You convinced me I should read it by your admiration for it.

      1. I’m curious – which are the two Ishiguro books you’ve read? I think I’ve read all but The Buried Giant, but not sure about that. The audio book of When We Were Orphans is a tour de force – on the part of the author, but especially of the narrator. I will probably never read the book because I believe this is one of those books for which the audiobook is the superior experience.

      2. I agree on re-reading – a good book continues to reward in new ways.

        I need to get my book blog back up and running. You inspire me.

    2. The comment about writing down your thoughts, instead of typing into a computer, I noticed years ago, was far superior form of information storage….it allows for instant diagrams to be constructed on the fly,it has some kind of direct link in a visual thinking process… the same is true for artistic drawing..I started drawing again, after years, and a few people asked WHY I didn’t use a computer to draw….and the eye-hand coronation is essential for a creative flow….

  3. Oh my – I got into Audio books back when I had a Walkman and checked out the tapes from the library. Then along came Audible. It was hard at first but I slowly got into it. Years went by and I liked Audio books better and better – along with Kindle – because of my eyes. Now if a book has any complexity to it at all, be it fiction or non, I love reading and listening at the same time. That pulls me in and focuses me. If it’s fascinating I can really lose myself in there.

  4. My wife and I listen to audiobooks while we have lunch. We’ve listened to mysteries–my wife is a huge Louise Penny fan–and Jenny Colgan’s humorous romance novels. I’m into History so we tackled Grant by Ron Chernow which is about 40 CDs of listening. Then we tackled Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson which was nearly as long. We always have a print copy of the book we’re listening to because sometimes the CDs slip or we get an occasional defective disc. I’ve never figured out why some people are hostile about audiobooks.

    1. I listened to Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson. I’m a big fan of his. Have you read his latest, Code Breaker? I’m into history too, but I’m not sure I could sit through 40 CDs of Grant’s biography. Did it go into how Mark Twain spent a lot of money on his autobiography?

      You out to try digital audiobooks. They are easier to deal with, and a lot of libraries offer them.

      1. Just bought Leonardo da Vinci hard copy because I knew I would want to underline and annotate. Grant was compelling and moving. I bought and read the hard copy. My daughter listened to the audiobook. We both fell in love with Ulysses.

  5. Oh I forgot to leave a comment on slow reading. Since I am a child of slow reading, I thought I was missing out on something, it turns out that the fast readers were missing out on what I was seeing in books…

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