by Ingrid Robeyns on December 16, 2022

Once in a while, I listen to a book as an audiobook, rather than reading it on paper or on my electronic device. Especially during the pandemic, when I was walking a lot, I loved listening to stories while walking. And clearly, for people who are dyslectic, or who for another reason can’t read easily, they are a real blessing.

But I’ve noted something weird with audio-books that I can’t quite grasp – so perhaps someone here can help me understand what is going on.

I believe that when I listen to a story, I have no problem following and remembering what’s going on. I’ve listened, for example, to The Underground Railroad, or to Educated, and didn’t feel I missed part of it. But with non-fiction books, I have a different experience. I seem to remember less well what’s in the book. It’s not a matter of not understanding (in the sense of listening to a text in a foreign language that one doesn’t fully master), but rather that for non-fiction, my brain seems to process better with visualisations. For example, I listened to Four Thousand Weeks, but I only remember its main message (that message being: life is short, much shorter than we tend to realise, so we should not waste it on things that aren’t valuable, and it’s impossible to do everything so make choices of what is most valuable for you). I cannot even remember the structure, or anything beyond that main idea that I took from it. And with both fiction and non-fiction, spending like 2 minutes browsing through the physical book, or even just looking at its table of contents for an online book, pulls out so many more details from my memory. It brings it all back. Or at least, it brings back many more details. With an audio-book, there is nothing that can tickle my memory.

Is this just me because I have a type of brain that works better with visualisation? (I also tend to visualise almost all ideas I develop for my academic work, often drawing tables, Venn-diagrams etc., to develop and analyse what are in essence just theoretical ideas). Or is this a challenge that everyone has with audio-books?



seth godin 12.16.22 at 2:04 pm

I know this sounds counterintuitive, but try this:

listen at 1.4 speed.

it’ll more closely match the way your brain works. By challenging you to keep up, you’ll pay more attention.

Works for me.


Joe 12.16.22 at 7:38 pm

Maybe it’s an “extended mind” issue. There’s evidence (and counter-evidence) that screen size makes a difference to ability to perform some tasks. One explanation is that larger screens scaffold weaker thought processes and draw on our tendency to use spatial processes to figure things out. Maybe audio vs text involves analogous differences in mental scaffolding. I learned about this from the audiobook The Extended Mind. It’s one of the only details I remember, probably because I researched it a bit more online.


Julie 12.17.22 at 12:00 am

My feeling is non-fiction often has a less story-like structure and further relies on diagrams, illustrations, footnotes and text boxes that don’t transfer as well to the audio book format. When the non-fiction is story-like then it can work on audiobook but otherwise not so much. I don’t think it is your brain but rather limitations of the format.


Godfree Roberts 12.17.22 at 1:35 am

100% of my ‘reading’ is on Audible books, 100% non-fiction. I have no greater difficulty remembering facts I’ve heard than those I read on screen, in the course of my day job.

The difficulty comes when I want to save/quote a fact from the Audible book. There’s currently no ‘search’ function.


Ingrid Robeyns 12.17.22 at 8:16 am

One of our readers send me an email with the following toughts:

Unlike a printed work, the audio-book moves forward mechanically whether you are paying attention or not. Minor distractions and stray thoughts take your focus away from the text as your mind continues to register that the reader’s voice is droning on.
And you’re often doing something else while you listen – walking, driving, or washing dishes – so you’re taking in distracting visual information and making small observations and decisions continuously. (That’s a pretty dog! or,I need to scrub this pot harder!) Of course you can read a text without giving it your full attention – maybe you’re listening to music – but the distractions are more intense when you’re listening to an audio book, and you’re less likely to go back and re-listen than you are to reread.

True story: I used to listen to audio books during my 30-minute drive to work, and I decided to try In Search of Lost Time. One morning I found myself at K Street and the last thing I could remember from the story had happened back at U Street.


Ingrid Robeyns 12.17.22 at 8:19 am

Julie @4 – I agree. perhaps also something with the concentration needed to process nonfiction, which is less for narrative books than for less narrative books.

@Godfree Roberts – what do you do, in addition to listening, when you listen to books? Do you drive, walk, lay on the couch, or something else? I’m wondering whether that might explain something (in my case).


AnthonyB 12.18.22 at 4:02 am

Is this related to the way one learns a second language? I can’t imagine having learnt French orally, and then having to map pronunciation onto spelling; mapping in the other direction is readily learnable. Similarly with Greek; not very much with German or Latin. (None of the preceding applies to native speakers, who of course speak before they write.)


Kristina 12.19.22 at 8:10 pm

Don’t overlook the narrator factor. Publishers might hire seasoned actors to voice new novels, and different voiceover artists for non-fiction works. They may all be very good, but perhaps you are getting that extra comprehension from listening to narrators with dramatic training.


Joe B. 12.20.22 at 9:52 am

Emotional enhancement of memory may play a role in remembering a story. Our brains may be wired for narrative because for the vast majority of human existence all “books” were audiobooks. I wonder whether a novel with a less traditional narrative structure might be hard to remember in any detail. For no particular reason I’m imagining the audiobook for Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman. Would I remember only the core thread of the narrative but gave a hard time with the meta-narrative? Not sure.


Tra 12.20.22 at 8:20 pm

I’ve found nonfiction books to be far easier to listen to and follow on audio while I often get lost listening to fiction books, especially dialog-heavy fiction books. Nonfiction books generally have a single narrator and a steady pace which makes it easier for me to follow along, it feels like walking a straight line and gives my secondary thoughts an anchor to pay attention to even while I’m doing something else. On the other hand, fiction books constantly shift in and out of dialog with varying tones and inflections. In contrast to the straight line of nonfiction, fiction audio books feel more like walking through a maze and each of those narrative switches acts like an exit for my brain to focus on something else.


Mike 12.29.22 at 11:46 pm

Regarding the reader’s thoughts shared by Ingrid @5-

When I’ve had lots of reading to plow through, I occasionally have the experience of the mechanical visual process of reading proceeding along ,despite my mind wandering miles away. This can last for a few minutes, not quite a full page worth. My eyes follow the text layout, even carrying over to the next page, but subjectively I don’t experience retaining any of the content. I wonder, though, if there is some non-zero information uptake.

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