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On Listening Well?
On Reading Well - Testing out Reading Techniques from Around the Internet Pt.I
If analytics are to be believed, many of you reading this newsletter first discovered the Raven’s Writing Desk through the “On Reading Well” series that I’ve been writing for some time now. In the process of writing those articles I’ve come across a number of other reading methods that I thought would be worth trying out so I could share my findings with you.
This is the first article covering those techniques.
When you saw the title, you might have assumed that it meant something like “How to Get the Most Out of Audiobooks” and you’re half right. We will be talking about Audiobooks today, but with a twist.
I used to work in a Kindergarten in Germany and one of my favourite responsibilities was reading aloud to the kids. I’d create voices for Pippa Langstrumpf and Kokosnuss der Kleine Drache and they’d correct me if I used the wrong voices. I would hold the book open for them all to see, so that they could read along with me and learn to associate certain noises with letters, letters with words, and ultimately learn to read themselves.
Most of us don’t experience this kind of thing past childhood. The closest we might get is watching a foreign movie with subtitles, but reading along with someone is likely a distant memory. So when I came across a video by Answers in Progress on YouTube encouraging adults to continue to practice, I was quite taken aback. It wasn't so much that there was anything wrong with the idea, but I just wasn’t sure what the point would be. What would be the benefit of reading along with a narrator as an adult? I personally love audiobooks, but was this a step too far?
To answer these questions I set myself the task of reading three books whilst listening to the same audiobook in order to document my findings.
Scribes and Scriptures by by John D. Meade and Peter J. Gurry
Walking on the Road with St Augustine by James K. A. Smith
Fairy Tale by Stephen King
I chose these as they were all very different books and they were ones I already had on my reading list.
Point #1 - Concentration
The issue the Answers in Progress video was attempting to address was the mass depletion of western society’s ability to read and comprehend books. I’ve spoken to many people who struggle not only to pick up a book, but if they do, to keep reading. It’s often because of seemingly short, but well intentioned, interruptions “I’ll just check that message quickly” or “I should really get a drink/snack first” but then other temptations creep in and suddenly the book has been left unread for another three weeks and the reader has long since forgotten the story thus far.
Whilst I personally love to read, I would be lying if I said that interruptions didn’t happen more often than not, and though I personally find it easy to go back to the book in question, it is rare that the interruption is either necessary or important. What I found practicing this technique was that having to go the extra step to both pause the audiobook and stop reading was enough of a deterrent to keep me reading nine times out of ten.
In addition, having both my eyes and my ears engaged in the process helped me to drown out the world around me, in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever quite experienced before.
Point #2 - Speed
Another surprising aspect of this technique was the speed at which I was able to listen to an audiobook at when I had the book in front of me. I usually listen to audiobooks at about 1.5x-2.0x speed—I do the same for YouTube videos and podcasts. I quickly found, however, that this was far too slow when reading along. I needed to amp up the speed to around 2.7x before it became comfortable. I did a couple of experiments with this. I tried listening to the same portion of the book with and without the book and honestly, it was to fast for me to properly comprehend without the book, meaning that there was evidently some benefit to engaging both of these senses. Seeing the words in front of me allowed for faster listening, and this in turn gave me a gauge to work out how long I would be reading each book and each chapter, and to plan out my time accordingly.
Before I get to my third and final point, however, I’d like to just give a couple of pitfalls that I found along the way.
Pitfall #1 - Comprehension
Part of my reasoning for choosing one fiction and two non-fiction books was that I was fairly certain that reading fiction would work out fairly well—if only because most of my audiobook library is made up of fiction—I knew that at the very least I would be able to continue listening should the technique not pan out. I was largely correct and have loved listening to Fairy Tale with the book in my hands, an exercise I’m keen to try again, possibly with another Stephen King novel. The non-fiction books presented greater challenges though. I mentioned interruptions in point one, and though most interruptions are unhelpful, one of the main ways I believe we gain from reading non-fiction is by intentionally taking time to stop reading, to highlight; make notes; or to ponder what has been said. Though this wasn’t impossible using this method, I found that I did this far less than I otherwise would have, and honestly I don’t think that I gained nearly as much from either of those books as a result. As I think back upon both of those books, I don’t think I remember nearly as much as I would usually.
This doesn’t mean you should never use this method for reading non-fiction—as we’ll discuss—but it is worth noting all the same.
Pitfall #2 - Inconsistencies
In Fairy Tale there is a moment when the narrator changes. I think I’m right in saying that King narrated that portion himself, and it was excellent; it was also, however, unfaithful to the words on the page. That one occurrence aside, the entire book was a word for word copy. The same could not be said for Scribes and Scriptures, which is somewhat ironic given the subject matter—read the book to find out why. The audiobook and the book itself were vastly different beasts. Some elements were absent entirely, others were moved to different sections of the book, the wording was changed, and the odd sentence here and there was removed for seemingly no reason. Had I listened solely to the audiobook, I wouldn’t have noticed this at all and I also don’t think that the decisions they made were necessarily wrong. Even so, attempting to complete this book according to the read along method was almost impossible and by the end I was mostly just glad the book was over. I don’t know how common this is and I would need to do more research to find out. I say this because even if this only happens for every book out of a hundred, I don’t want you to get tripped up at the first hurdle if you’ve stumbled across that 1%. There are great reasons to try out this method for yourself, but beware the pitfalls that might come as a result.
Point #3 - Habit
Before I go on, take a second to answer these two questions:
Here’s where this method comes into its own.
Let’s say you would like to read 26 books this year—roughly one book a fortnight—and you have 7 hours a week to do so. Some quick calculations leave you with about 365 Hours of reading—that’s an average of 14 Hours per book. You try it out and find out that you can read at 1.5x speed and so if you wanted to read along with the Fellowship of the Ring, it would take you roughly 15 hours. Some books are much shorter, some are longer, but with all things considered, 26 books now seems like a very achievable goal.
You buy two books and two audiobooks a month, set aside the time and as a result, you will likely begin to form a habit. In a world in which self-control and discipline have largely been eschewed for less remarkable “virtues” it is unsurprising that reading levels have diminished. Perhaps what we need, and I don’t mean this pejoratively at all, is to return to Kindergarten and relearn the skill of reading from scratch. Before I made it to teaching, I had to learn German. I started with Comic Books, moved on to children’s novels, then popular fiction, and then finally classic authors like Goethe and Zweig. All in all this curve took me about a year. Why not take that same amount of time, read along with some audiobooks, and see where it takes you?
After that, try putting down the audiobook, put your phone in another room, and continue reading with the habit you’ve formed?
If you’ve enjoyed today’s article, please do leave a comment and let me know if you’re going to try this out for yourself or about another reading method you’d like me to try.
Grace and Peace,
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