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 Audible.com 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 Scribd.com 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.