Reading in the fast lane
Accelerated audiobooks are apparently a trend. We tested one out to find out if speed-listening actually works
I’ve long been told I speak incomprehensibly fast, my words tumbling forth as if emerging from a dangerously overburdened waterslide, so I naturally assumed I’d be an ideal candidate for speed-listening.
The practice of listening to books on tape at double-speed was declared a trend by the Atlantic in June, the latest step in our collective quest to stretch our capacity for information to unforgiving ends. Various tech blogs have recommended powering through podcasts at double speed, while apps such as Overcast and Faster Audio promise expedited playback for full-throttle listeners.
“I’ve heard it’s quite doable,” said Steve Harris, owner of the Harris Institute of Speed reading, noting that his daughter speed-listens to her university lectures. “If the professor’s droning away, slowly and boringly, she just figures: ‘Let’s speed it up.’ ”
But exactly how does acceleration affect comprehension? And while the tool might be useful for podcast fast-tracking, can it be applied to more demanding literature?
To put the trend to the test, I listened to Andy Weir’s bestseller The Martian at double-speed, while my colleague Ryan Porter absorbed the mission at regular velocity.
He found that the sci-fi genre generally didn’t lend itself to the audiotape experience, with the tale’s jargon jogging by at jarring speed. Listening as he walked around the city, he missed crucial plot points, stayed on elevators too long, and observed TTC riders reading the physical version with jealousy, longing for the Taylor Swift lurking elsewhere on his phone.
Of course, I found the effect even more disorienting. Unless I summoned an uncharacteristic level of focus, I retained little of what was filtering through my earbuds. Only proper nouns, swear words or shouted dialogue reliably refocused my attention. During the particularly science-heavy bits, it felt like someone was rapping the Periodic Table of Elements in my ear.
I reassured myself that I was absorbing untold details subliminally — until I consulted an expert.
“It certainly is possible to absorb information unknowingly,” said J. Bruce Morton, associate professor in the University of Western Ontario’s department of psychology. “But novelists don’t write subliminal novels.
If someone has crafted a novel expecting that an audience is going to read it and be consciously aware of the content, I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to talk about the audience’s subliminal impression.”
The benefits of speed-listening, then, may not extend to literature.
But given Ryan’s experience, it seems even regular-speed listening limits comprehension, or at least demands dedicated attention.
“Speaking and therefore listening is almost the least effective way to convey an idea,” Harris said. “The speed of talking is usually around 150 words per minute, and the average literate person reads about 250 words per minute.
“So,” he added, “usually the printed word is a better way to take in information.”
Canadian humorist Terry Fallis has issued all five of his novels as podcasts prior to their physical release, including his recent Poles Apart.
Yet the two-time Stephen Leacock Medal winner doesn’t actually listen to many audiobooks. Podcasts are his distraction. His attention does sometimes wander, and he concedes that the same thing probably happens with his listeners.
“There are more distractions because your hands are free,” he said.
Fallis says his twin brother Tim, by the way, is a committed speed-listener who feels he loses nothing in hurried translation.
So if any listener wants to floor the pedal during Poles Apart, you’ll hear no complaints from Fallis.
“More power to them if they can do it — it might mean they can listen to more of my audio podcasts,” he laughed. “But I don’t want to listen to someone speaking that quickly. It stresses me out.”