An encounter with speed listening

The Side Effects of Learning Thricely


It was a rainy afternoon,
and being but sixteen years old and still shackled to the dependent life of the unlicensed driver, I was waiting for my brother to pick me up at the train station. When he finally arrived and I stepped into the warm and dry shelter of his Jeep, I was greeted by a cacophonous sound. Blaring from the speakers was the voice of a man speaking at breakneck pace. The barrage of words was so rapid that I could only pick out the odd word: “robot”, “technology”, “future”. It was as if I had stepped into a Kubrickian nightmare and the machines were leaving me in the dust. My brother’s explanations didn’t help.

“What is this?” I asked.

“Way of the future, bro. The singularity. It’s fuckin’ near.”

“The what is near?”

“Singularity. The computers are taking over, bro. Get on board.”

A few dozen confused questions later, I had deduced the following: one, the assaultive sounds emerging from the speakers were in fact an audiobook; two, the book we were listening to was Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near; and three, we were listening to the book at 3x speed. Not only was my brother able to understand the words being spoken, but he also had full comprehension of the book in general and could continue to pay attention even while navigating slick roads. Such was my introduction to the Audible app and the precarious practice of listening to audiobooks at 3x speed.

Audible, the Amazon-owned leader in audiobook distribution, provides a massive library of recorded books in its online store as well as a dedicated mobile app with which to listen to them. One of the perks of using the app, as opposed to simply using iTunes, is that it allows for listeners to progressively increase the rate at which the books are read. Users can start at 1.5x speed and work all the way up to 3x, and all without chipmunk effects. As long as you work your way up slowly, listening at three times speed can be a breeze, allowing you to devour huge numbers of books during hours that might otherwise be wasted (driving, building IKEA furniture, etc.). But beware: accelerated learning of this sort is not without its caveats. Possible side effects may include:

– Rapid speech
– Conversational impatience
– Social introversion (why hang out with girls when I could be learning at three times speed?)
– General feeling of superiority emanating from the sudden accumulation of literary knowledge

Depending on your disposition, listening to books thrice as fast may sound like the self-improvement edge you’ve been waiting for or another technological wound to the already crumbling literary tradition. We’re not welcoming the singularity just yet, but for the curious soul with a dearth of time on his hands, Audible is hard to beat.

I myself have found Audible a nifty tool for plowing through my nonfiction reading list as well as the drier and lengthier works on my college syllabi. I’m not yet persuaded, though, that the technology lends itself to fiction reading, which benefits from a slower and more appreciative approach.

“People are so dumb, man,” my brother complained to me when last I saw him. “I can’t relate to anyone anymore. They don’t have enough knowledge.”

“That’s rough,” I told him. Then I let him get back to his book, and went outside.