Time-deprived bookworms, help has arrived!

By Pierre Saint-Laurent | December 13, 2006 | Last updated on December 13, 2006
5 min read

(December 2006) Ah, modern life. We are better off, in so many ways, than our forebears, but the price to pay invariably seems to be the lack of free time — which translates into an ongoing quest for “quality time.” We are a lot more selective about how we spend the time we have, but much of it is not really under our control, as we defer to the requirements of job responsibilities, family obligations, and other constraints.

This all means that you have precious little time to read, especially once you’re done taking care of office paperwork, professional manuals, and the like. What’s an advisor to do?

Help has arrived for me and all of you who would like to read more, but just can’t seem to find the time. It’s a growing trend, all the rage in fact, and it’s perfectly suited to our MP3 world.

Audiobooks, or having books transcribed to a spoken medium, is not a new concept. The first company, Books on Tape, was started decades ago in the U.S. when the founder needed to commute constantly to meet with his spouse, who had been assigned to work in another city. Books on Tape would have rental tapes available in truck stops, allowing drivers to pick up a tape in one location and drop it off down the road, at the next truck stop. Talk about a nifty marketing approach!

Fast forward to today. This is the land and time of the iPod and other portable audio devices. They can be tiny or they can have unbelievable capacity — the 60-gigabyte iPod basically has the same hard drive as my laptop! Some are water-resistant, shock-protected, you name it. Many cars now come with MP3 ports so you can plug your device into the car’s audio system. Those that don’t can easily be converted using a cheap tape-to-MP3 player device that plugs into the car’s tape deck. In brief, you can get a portable audio device for any possible use you may think of.

The MP3 revolution is also about downloadability: you don’t need to go to the store to get your music, you can buy it on the Web. From there you can burn your downloads to CD and play the book directly in your car’s CD player. iTunes and other services each have millions of songs, movies, TV shows and audiobooks available for download. This means getting the audio you want is a true cinch.

Now think of your week. It’s a fact that you have just about enough time to do it all, except read, or at least read to the extent you’d like to. That said, you most likely spend a lot of time commuting and driving around. Also, you spend time in activities that may not require your full concentration (anyone who goes to a gym on a regular basis or runs regularly knows what I mean). Wouldn’t it be great to turn this time into quality time, during which you learn something significant or dive into a great novel? That’s exactly what audiobooks allow you to do.

Many think that books were not meant to be listened to, that books were printed for a purpose. I’m the first to agree that there is true pleasure in sitting down to a good book, turning the pages, perhaps annotating them, but that is totally irrelevant if you never get to open the book in the first place! For me, I’d rather acquire the contents of the book in a different format than not at all, for lack of time.

Others will object, saying it’s hard to go back to specific pages in an audiobook format. Think about the last book you’ve read though: unless it was reference material or a textbook, chances are you didn’t go back to it.

Still others will say you need concentrated and exclusive share of mind to get into a book. In my experience it depends on the material and it depends on what you’re doing. If you can talk on the cellphone in a car, you can definitely listen intently to an audiobook. And unless you’re trying to beat your personal best on the treadmill, your jog could be much improved by “intelligent listening.” I find that I lose very little understanding of the material in these situations.

In fact, one of the true pleasures of listening to books is that voices reading the books can add much to the enjoyment. Many readers are professional actors, and several are rather well known (I just finished a book read by Richard Gere, for instance). In these cases, the book becomes a performance where the reader adds intonations, accents and highlights, making the listening experience quite unique.

Pros and Cons of the audiobook revolution:

Listen to books at "unproductive" times Certain activities make it difficult to concentrate
Book readings by actors and authors add a new dimension Books are not meant to be "listened to"
MP3 devices are light and portable/can listen anywhere Reference material and textbooks are not usually available in audiobook format
Vast selection of popular books Audiobook format not conducive to notation or reference
Several genres, including business books are available Too complex, requires downloading or CD burning
Costs are reasonable (audiobooks are often cheaper than print versions)
Downloading books is easy, avoids shopping
Audiobooks in tape and CD format can also be bought in-store rather than downloaded

What books have been read into audiobooks? Quite a few, actually. You will not typically find textbooks, reference material, or highly specialized subjects, although some have been translated into audio format specifically for the blind, but you will find a full complement of novels, classics, drama, mystery, general science, technology, sports and business books available. Many recent bestsellers are available.

So think of your commute tomorrow morning, think of your time on the treadmill, and consider that you can convert this time into enjoyable, rich time spent with your favourite “book.”

In the end, not everyone will enjoy the audiobook format, but a rapidly growing number of busy, intellectually curious professionals are turning to audiobooks to solve the “no time to read” dilemma. In my view, it’s worth a try. That’s time really well spent!

Where to go to find out more: Arguably, the market leader is Audible.com (www.audible.com), which now has sites in several languages. Apple and its iTunes also have a significant selection of audiobooks (www.itunes.ca). A Canadian entry is Simply Audiobooks (www.simplyaudiobooks.com), which also offers a rental service if you want actual CDs but don’t want to buy them. Tapes and CDs are also available at major book retailers like Chapters, although selection is not what can be found online.

Pierre Saint-Laurent, M.Sc., CFA, CAIA, is president of AssetCounsel Inc., a Canadian financial services consultancy. He can be reached at PSL@AssetCounsel.com.


Pierre Saint-Laurent