I use Audiobooks, recorded lectures and podcasts to learn to a massive extent and I find them extremely useful. I haven’t heard them discussed on here much, so I thought I would broach the subject. Here on lesswrong in terms on scholarship textbooks are widely favored and textbooks on math are especially encouraged. I’ve listened to some textbooks that worked well in audio and even if you can’t learn math very well with them, there are plenty of other useful things to learn as well.

 One barrier to using audiobooks that a lot of people have described to me is that they can read much faster than they can get through audiobooks. It’s pretty easy to find applications that speed up audio, though, so this doesn't seem like a great reason. Another barrier is that it is harder to find audio sources of things, again, clever use of the internet can still find you most things.

 The two main benefits that I would expect most people to receiving when listening to audio rather than reading are:

  (1) That you can accomplish some other manual task while listening to an audiobook.

   I work at a manual job so I have more time available to listen than the average person, but I think that most people underestimate the amount of time that they could spend at activities that you can listen to audiobooks while doing. Some examples are commuting, cleaning, making things, sports, shopping, shaving and falling asleep. Doubling you productivity is just not something that can be overlooked.

(2) That listening to audiobooks is less effortful than reading.

  This has definitely been my experience and I would be interested in hearing what other people’s experiences are to see if I really am typical in this respect. I love reading, but it’s the sort of activity that I have to take breaks from and whereas with audiobooks I can actually just happily listen to them with all of my waking hours. I remember being read to as a kid and it’s just like that. 

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I'm not sure how common this is, but I can't process audio information nearly as well as visual. This would prevent me from learning anything complex by audiobooks.

Hmm, that's interesting. This isn't the case for me. Perhaps that tendency is why there are fewer higher level or more audiobooks availible.


I've found audiobooks are great when I'm just trying to absorb facts. Any kind of popular history or science book is great on audio because my attention can fade in and out and I'll still pick up useful facts. Big ideas/concepts can be communicated this way as well since the main points are repeated over and over in most books. But I can't at all learn methods, complex arguments or skills or math from audiobooks. It's too difficult to do the pausing and rewinding I'd need to do given my attention span. And for a lot of these things visual aids are essential.

I'm wondering if people can recommend a book reader with a decent text-to-speech capability, i.e. good enough for non-fiction.

I use text aloud for this purpose. I find the "Graham" voice best suited for non-fiction.

One crucial activity for me is listening to audiobooks while driving. I used to hate driving, but now I'm just a student in a car!

A fact about audiobooks is that they only go to such depth. I cannot find a better course than "the origins of the human mind" on evolutionary psychology. For my areas of expertise (Evo Psy, Pos Psy, Evolution, and Philosophy) there is nothing audiobooks can give me anymore. So I'm learning linguistics, economics and Anthropology.

My question to fellow less wrongers is: There is widespread rumor that the free days of finding good books, audiobooks, movies, and music on the internet are counted. Should we download Loads of good material, and keep it safe?

I was not aware of this rumor. How did you come to the conclusion it is widespread, and why do you think it's worth taking seriously?

Several P2P websites were taken down, some, like piratebay, had to change location. Most important I think is that the old Gigapedia, which became Library.nu went down. It probably had the best books online. Things are scattering now. It is widespread in Brazil where I live (though websites are down everywhere). I also noted it on the SI fellows list. I think it is a cheap time effort investment to take it seriously.

For my areas of expertise [...] Philosophy

I find it somewhat difficult to believe that you've maxed out your knowledge "philosophy" obtainable from audiobooks! But only somewhat, if you care to inform me that there is simply a terrible drought of philosophy audiobooks.

There is widespread rumor that the free days of finding good books, audiobooks, movies, and music on the internet are counted.

This comment is oddly prescient. Yesterday, I downloaded several books from libgen.info. Today, when I attempted to do so a bit more, I find that libgen.info is gone. library.nu and libgen.info were the best, or perhaps only decent book pirating websites. Now there is basically nowhere to get free pirated books online.

Edit: And now I find that this comment is premature; libgen.info is back up. Shocking scare, though.
Edit: And now I see that previous edit was premature; libgen.info is down again.
Edit: It is back up. I give up.

There is at least one community that does (properly) free audiobooks: LibriVox. However, they are restricted to public domain works, so their catalog is restricted (it consists mostly of old works that have gone out of copyright).

They have a fairly large number of audiobooks categorised as non-fiction (although the bible appears to be put in this category). Also, the free restriction means that modern/up-to-date courses are likely to be hard to come by (that said, I don't really know that much about LibriVox's catalog, and I'd be very happy to be proved wrong).

If you spend enough time looking you can find some higher level stuff. But, yeah, unfortunately I mostly end up listening to intro stuff of various disciplines.

Things seem to be getting worse for internet piracy, but if you use stuff to hide your IP and go to private torrent sites things will probably still be great.

Some personal experiences:

  • huge fan of audiobooks, there are lots of good ones, and you can pretty much search for them like regular books - very good % have audio versions at this point (thank the ipod). check Audible.com. Obviously books that have significant math or charts are a non-starter, but many good psych/business/biographies/history and popular science are available, not to mention fiction.

  • try changing speed settings. my setup is audible app on the iphone, it supports cloud storage (convenient) and has up to 3x speedup. I listen to non-fiction at 3x easily at this point (and can probably do 4x if they make it available), and fiction at 1.5 (1x feels slow at this point, so it seems I overclocked my brain a bit!)

Audiobooks are great for commute and other situations that require your bodily presence but not your brain (shopping, etc). They reduce my annoyance/stress level dealing with these things.

So which audiobooks would you recommend?

One problem I face with audiobooks is that I find it much harder to focus on the material. I keep catching myself drifting away even when the material is really interesting. If any of you have a similar problem, how did you address it?

I zone out occasionally, but that happens when I read as well. One way to get around that would be to listen to books continuity isn't especially important so that losing your place will not be as costly.

I've found that it's easier for me to focus when I speed up the audiobook's playback sufficiently that I have to exert some small effort to follow what's going on. The Audible app on the iPhone lets you speed up the playback up to 3x. I now listen to all my audiobooks at that maximum speed. As an added advantage, you get through a lot more material.

The cost of this technique is that the extra attention required might preclude you from effectively performing some of the manual tasks listed as benefit (1) in the post. I usually only listen to audiobooks while I'm working out, walking somewhere or using public transport.

Another idea is to make it easily rewindable (I presume such word doesn't exist, but you get the gist). In my car, there are several moments when I need to go back a few minutes.