Books at These Speeds: Sped-Up Audiobooks

Let me take you back to the days when I was part of a book club on television.

Yes, I used to travel every month or so to a TV studio where I’d sit with a bunch of other folks and talk about a book. Our hour-long chat would be clipped down to about 2 minutes and used to fill a slot on a slow news day.

Depicted here is my entire contribution to this endeavor after attending about half a dozen tapings:

Yep, those are my legs. The hardest working legs in showbusiness. Unless someone else already has that title, in which case I’ll go with "Hardest Working Legs In Showcharity" because nobody paid me.

And because only my legs were shown, I decided a couple things:

1. More calf raises

2. Maybe don’t worry as much about reading the whole entire book

The first one was hard because calf raises are really super boring and also because the gymnasium is one of the worst places on the planet. I was there last week and a bird got stuck inside. He smashed himself against the glass a couple times, left a blood spatter, and when another guy and I tried to urge him outside, he flew away, smashed into some more glass, and exited into the lobby. And all I could think was, “I know how you feel, bro.” Also, that bird’s calves looked like shit.

The second part of the plan was also hard because, you know, I consider myself a decent reader and reviewer, and I knew I’d be in a room with a bunch of people who’d read the book. So I had to find a way to sort of read the book, sort of not.

What I came up with was audiobooks.

Now, I know audiobooks are legit. I’m not trying to talk smack about audio here. The thing is, it was perfect for my needs. When you’re being read to, the text just keeps coming. It doesn’t matter if your concentration is broken or not. The text never stops. The tireless narrator will never stop. As long as that iPod has battery power, there is no end.

And so, if it’s a book you’re not really into, audio can be a way to sort of let the text pass by, like a wave that washes peacefully over you while you’re grocery shopping, driving, and doing calf raises (seriously, you have to do like a million to see any results).

During one listening session I accidentally discovered how easy it was to double the speed of an audiobook. One tap on the iPod, and it was as though the narrator had taken a handful of uppers, drank a couple pots of coffee, and then had to tell me the entire plot of a book before a countdown ended and a bomb exploded.

At this point, the cost/benefit calculations didn’t even enter my mind. Who cared? I would finish a book I didn’t even want to read in half the time, buy some tighter pants, drive to the TV studio, and all would be gravy.

I’ve since quit the book club, either because it just wasn’t worth the time or because I received far too many calf-related fan letters and felt guilty about not responding.

But I haven’t quit double-timing audiobooks.

Why I Recommend Speeding Up Audiobooks

It’s like everything in life. It sucks and it’s disappointing because it’s about daily balance.

In the early 2000s speed listening was seen as a product of the Silicon Valley attitude. If you don’t know much about Silicon Valley, people there like paying really high rent, working in offices with furniture you’d normally see on an outdoor patio (silly geese!), and gathering as much information as efficiently as possible. Oh, and efficiency is not a way to save time here and there. It’s a competitive way of life.

Why go at normal speed when you could listen to an entire business book over the course of just a couple commutes? If you’re a podcast listener, you could get everything you need in half the time. TED Radio Hour? Ha, more like TED Radio Half Hour. This American Life? More like This American Half-Life. Hello From The Magic Tavern? More like Sup From The MT.

However, there’s more to speed listening than nerds doing nerd shit twice as fast.

Speed listening might be more engaging for some listeners. For example, it turns out that blind people will sometimes have a vastly increased ability to comprehend super fast speech, speech faster than humans are capable of producing naturally. Imagine, if you will, that your capacity for speech comprehension topped out at three times the average. “Normal” audiobook pace would be painfully slow. It’d be like turning into The Flash, but instead of running you’re driving an old Yugo. In a school zone.

There’s even more. This whole speeding up idea, it’s not just audio.

I came across this article about watching sped-up television. The article’s author, Jeff Guo, says that the number of scripted TV shows has almost doubled in less than a decade. The only way to keep up with twice as much TV in the same amount of viewing time is to speed things up (or invent a machine that slows time, but that seems likely to cause some pretty serious paradoxes that you and I can’t even imagine, and time paradoxes, paradoxically, rarely save anyone time).

Guo even went so far as to say that the benefits of doubling a show’s speed go beyond time savings:

...speeding up video is more than an efficiency hack. I quickly discovered that acceleration makes viewing more pleasurable. "Modern Family" played at twice the speed is far funnier — the jokes come faster and they seem to hit harder. I get less frustrated at shows that want to waste my time with filler plots or gratuitous violence. The faster pace makes it easier to appreciate the flow of the plot and the structure of the scenes.

Why I Don’t Recommend Speeding Up Audiobooks

If you skipped down to this part to hear about how you've been living life right, keeping things nice and slow, I have to reveal something to you: You’re experiencing sped-up media already.

Yep, it turns out that many a network has sped up reruns in order to fit in more commercials. It’s not double the speed, but if you kick up the pace about 7%, you can cut 2 minutes of runtime from a sitcom without missing a precious mother-in-law joke. 

I don’t know about you, but I hate that idea. It’s completely irrational because I would never know that an episode of Seinfeld was 7% faster. But still, I hate it.

Doubling media speed feels a little like speedwalking through an art museum. I have to assume that art museums don’t really work that way, and I assume this because nobody took me up on the offer to make an art museum where you get on a moving walkway and never stop.

Most of the arguments against sped-up audiobooks come down to experiencing something in a way other than its creator intended. It’s like Nate DiMeo of The Memory Palace podcast puts it:

You can listen to Abbey Road on 45, but I’m sure George Martin and the Beatles would not appreciate it. 

I can make the argument simple. You’re sitting down to watch the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I have no doubt that this is totally watchable at double the speed. But will you feel that Peter Jackson succeeded and brought this world to life if you spend half the time there? The whole idea is to trace an epic journey, to watch a very small character make his way through a big, big world. The lengthy runtime is almost certainly a way to increase the size of the world. One way of communicating the world’s size in a movie is to show how long it takes to get across. This would almost certainly be lost with a doubling of the speed.

Something is lost when the speed of an audiobook is doubled.

Acceleration: Good or Bad

It’s nothing new to say we’re living in an accelerated culture. That’s always the story, right? Everything is faster. We pack more into a day.

What’s harder to say is whether this acceleration is good or bad.

However, whether it’s good or bad is a dumb question. Asking whether something is good or bad is only useful if the thing in question hasn’t been widely adopted yet. Sped-up listening is out there. There’s no going back.

The better, more interesting question is whether you’re going to try it.

Should I Speed Up This Audiobook or Not?

If you want you want to know whether speeding up a given audiobook is a good idea, here’s a little quiz I made up for you.

Am I enjoying the book?

If so, keep it slow. If not, let’s get it over with.

Is it highly narrative or is it more informational?

Note the difference between this and talking about fiction versus non-fiction. When we’re talking about something that’s information-based, I find the acceleration doesn’t seem to harm the experience much. When there’s narrative, especially if it’s emotional, speed kills.

What are the qualities of the narration?

Different readers will lose more or less from being sped up. It just depends on their style and how receptive your brain is to their particular style.

Is the book meant to be blown through?

It’s simple. If you’re drinking Natural Light, feel free to put it in a funnel. If you’re drinking an expensive rye, don’t. Figure out which books are your Natty Light, set 'em up, knock 'em down.

Am I using the book to kill time or am I trying to get through it quick

If you’re reading for leisure and to kill time (for example, calf raise reading), then there’s not a lot of benefit to blowing through pricey audiobooks.

Is it for a book club?

Double the speed. Triple it. You weren’t going to finish this book anyway. At least now you’ll have an interesting story about your attempt.

Is some A-hole telling you that if you speed up an audiobook, the timing and pauses will be off?

That A-hole thinks he's got a really good point, but he doesn't. Tell that A-hole that time is relative, and a pause in narration will still be a pause in narration, and though the actual duration of the pause is shorter, its relative impact should still be preserved. And listen to the audiobook at twice the speed just to spite him. Spite is ALWAYS a good reason to do something.

Conclusion

I can’t believe I’m doing this, but I’m going to compare this whole issue to calf raises. Full circle!

You can do a few different calf exercises. Let’s say there are 10.

Doing one rep of each exercise isn’t going to provide the desired benefit.

And on the other hand, doing one of those 10 exercises exclusively isn’t ideal either.

It’s like everything in life. It sucks and it’s disappointing because it’s about daily balance. Nothing more boring than the idea of a balanced approach to something, right?

With sped-up media, it’s the same deal. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s harmless, and sometimes it’s bad. It’s never going to be all one way.

Give it a shot. 


Have you tried speeding up an audiobook before? What did you listen to? If you haven’t, what would you listen to or watch sped up?

Image of Thinking, Fast and Slow
Manufacturer: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Image of Life at These Speeds: A Novel
Manufacturer: Thomas Dunne Books
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Column by Peter Derk

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado.  He's a master of library science (which is a real thing) and considers himself a master of picking out the one functional treadmill in any gymnasium (which is not a real thing).  Buy him a drink sometime and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public library's restroom.

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