Maximizing reading time

Recently, anticipating a dull drive into downstate Illinois, I purchased Freakonomics as a digital audiobook from iTunes. Well-blogged and approaching supermeme status, Freakonomics was an excellent book. My only criticism was in the format. Some of the data-heavy parts of the narration (lists, recitation of percentages, etc.) didn’t work so well in the format of an ever-onward audio stream.

But the audio format did give me an idea. Smartly, the iPod and iTunes synch virtual “bookmarks” so that you can always know where you left off. But what I’d really like is the ability to tell an audiobook on the iPod which page I left off in the print version of the book (and vice versa, to have the iPod tell me where I would be in print). Why? I would like the ability to seamlessly switch reading modes — visual and audiotory — as the environment around me dictates. The most common scenario I envision is on my commute, the precious time when most of my day’s reading happens. I carry my book with me on the walk to the L train so that I have it out when I reach the platform, but that walking time is time I could be reading if I didn’t have to be heads-up negotiating traffic on my stroll to the L. But since I always have my iPod headphones on (for music) it would be great if I could tell the iPod where I left off in print. I’d gain an extra few minutes of reading time. Likewise, if the train was too crowded to comfortably open a book I could revert to the audio format. I still highly value the physical phenomenon of reading a book and would not want to give that up, but it seems to me some fluidity of output would increase my reading efficiency greatly.

Practically this would be problematic. For one, audiobooks are expensive. Owning hard copies in addition to audio versions seems excessive. Also, with so many versions and paginations of a single book title — no to mention abridged and extended audio versions — the synching would be very difficult. Lastly, and I suspect this is the real deal-breaker, I bet it would be somewhat jarring cognitively to switch back-and-forth between reading modes. Reading a book normally simply takes more work, a greater level of engagement, than sitting back and having it read to you. Maybe I underestimate our ability to do this. People switch between reading, watching TV, and carrying on a conversation all the time. But I think it is the fact that these tasks are all different as opposed to being an identical narrative in different modes that allows us to make the cognitive switch.

Guess I’ll have to test it out and report back.