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The advantage of listening over reading

The advantage of listening over reading

By James H. Choi
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https://dl.dropbox.com/u/6378458/Column/Graphics/audiobook.pngEvery single one of my students is pressed for time.  Heavy loads of studying, reading assignments and other activities seem to be making their calendar bursting in the seams.  Fitting all these activities into a 24-hour day is simply impossible.  Is there anything you can do about it?

Yes.  I lead a busy life myself, and I’ve found a great way to cope with this kind of overload — a way to have an essentially free ride as far as time is concerned.  The secret is by listening to the books instead of reading them.  Learning to written passages has helped me leverage my “free time” and distribute my tasks more efficiently.

What exactly do you listen?  Take literature books for example.  Most of the books in high-school reading list are already available as audio books. You could check these out from a library free or buy many of them for about $20 on Amazon.com.  The public libraries in my area (Glenview, Illinois) allow you to log-in and “check out” these audio books by letting you down them into your computer, then subsequently transferred to your mp3 player device.

Consuming books this way allows convert your auto-pilot time into book reading time .  When I’m faced with a long drive, the first thing I look for is audio books to listen to.  Many people will say reading is much better than listening.  I agree.  But do you read?  Do you have time to read?

The fallacy of this advice is that it assumes the choice is between reading and listening.  But the real choice is more often between listening and not reading at all, in which case listening is far superior.  I read five to ten books in addition to every issue of  The Economist every month through listening.  I do not know how much information I retain versus lose.  But I know I am retaining far more information than those who do not read at all.  Obviously.

Listening to books has some disadvantages.  For instance, it’s slower than reading.  So if you have a deadline for a book report the next day, you should read.  Additionally, you might miss some fine points depending on your circumstances.  For example, you may not remember the part you listened while you were evading a hostile-looking dog.  But the fact is that the alternative was nothing.  Even if you have to re-read a book after patchy listening, the audio book offers you a head start.  With one reading of the book, you will understand as much as those who read it twice.


Many people tell me they’re visual learners who cannot acquire knowledge aurally.  To these people, I ask, “Do you communicate over the phone?”  If so, then you must be aurally equipped enough to handle listening.  However, some people seem to be genuinely written-communication-oriented, and cannot learn much from listening.  Some go as far as offering an unsolicited reprimand on my listening habits, and declare that one should focus on the road only while driving.  He claimed that he forgets everything he heard on the radio soon as he leaves the car.  He is probably telling the truth.  But that’s his problem, make sure you don’t constrain yourself for someone else’s handicap.

In addition to literature, lectures are great to listened to.  A great company called “The Great Courses” offers all kinds of courses on all types of topics.  Some courses require you to see the content, but most can be learned completely by listening.  Truly great professors teach these audio lectures, too, far more engaging than than most professors you will ever see in your college campus.  That’s because all professors are there because they are good researchers.  Nobody is ever hired or fired at a campus for his or her teaching ability.  But these audio-lecture professors were selected because of their teaching abilities.  They make it exciting.

I got into literature, philosophy and history after I listened to The Great Courses lectures.  I am not sure if it was my aging (with assumed commensurate maturity) or the lectures alone, but I am sure this hard core science guy would not have reached this point of well-balanced-ness without those lectures and an mp3 player to listen to them.

So rather than pumping the same music into your ears, switch the channel and open yourself to new knowledge.  You’ll find yourself learning a whole lot more without having to allocate any new time.


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