A productivity trap

As publishers see more and more interest, they’re making more and more irresistible audiobooks, and paying big-name celebrities to help draw readers. Eddie Redmayne’s narration of JK Rowling’s fictional textbook, published by Pottermore, came out March 14, and is an Amazon bestseller. On February 14, Random House Audio released the aural version of George Saunders’s debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, with a 166-person cast, including Susan Sarandon, Don Cheadle, David Sedaris, and Lena Dunham. The movie version has since been sold to actors Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally, who both play characters in the audiobook.

At a February event in New York City, Saunders admitted it was the first time he was reading the book in public, and not a group of actors. He told Quartz the actors’ voices are the ones he hears now in his own mind.

In the way that film and TV adaptations imagine a world for the reader—the setting, characters’ faces, unspoken actions and glances—audiobooks do that through voice. In audiobooks, readers depend on producers and actors to predigest and interpret content for them. But the ease of that passive consumption can lead to another kind of dependence.

“Having our devices, which give us constant access to podcasts, audiobooks, radio livestream, we actually develop addictions to use them in a mindless way,” says Elana Feldman, assistant professor of management at UMass Lowell.

“Given that we have access,” she says, “People feel that they can and should use every moment of their time in a productive way. For a lot of people it means, ‘What could I also be doing right at this time?'”

Ticking boxes on a consumption to-do list in this way can actually impair longterm productivity and creativity in unforeseen ways, she warns. The mind can benefit when you listen to nothing at all. ”Creativity happens in non-conscious ways,” she says. “[Psychological] incubation can happen when you’re cooking, exercising, driving, when you’re not purposefully thinking about something.” It’s difficult to achieve that when you’re filling downtime time with mental stimulation, even if it’s a novel.

And in terms of productivity, listening to books in the gym may not be the best way to learn. Even though Feldman has never specifically studied audiobooks, she says, generally, “The concept of multitasking is really kind of a myth.” The cost of switching between simultaneous tasks exceeds the benefits.

But ultimately, of course, there are far worse addictions. Says Audible’s Anderson, “Listening to too many books or magazines is probably one of the less offensive vices one might have.”

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