25 November 2019

Taking notes on audiobooks

Audiobooks are big business. I’ve been listening to a lot of them this year and the combination of my regular driving commute and running means I get through them quickly. I’ve developed my own system for taking notes when reading and it’s an important part of my reading process. I’ll detail that another time but here’s my immediate problem: how do you capture notes and thoughts when listening to an audiobook?

It’s straightforward if you are sitting down and listening as you can keep a notebook handy. However, one of the attractions of audiobooks is that they are consumed while you are doing other things. Usually I’m driving but I have started listening when out for a walk or sometimes a run.

So, I’ve been mulling over the possibilities.

Just use your usual system

Stop what you are doing and make a note using your preferred medium. Not very handy when engaged in some activity but I do fall back on this when I can.

Dictating notes

It’s an audio medium so using audio to record notes has some logic. There are some options here. You can use the phone that is playing the audiobook to record a voice memo. It may involve hitting some buttons if you don’t have a plan. I’ve never been happy to try this when driving as any fiddling with buttons is almost certainly not legal and definitely unsafe. It can be done without a massive fuss when out walking although it is disruptive when running.

So a no-hands system is needed. I have tried keeping a dictaphone in the car and I have found it quite straightforward to use for the occasional quick note. It does involve fiddling with a device (so isn’t really no-hands), though with mine I can do this without even looking at it. Being safe is clearly the priority. For complete hands-free safety then Siri (or equivalent) could be the way forward. It is possible to set up Siri to open an app like Bear and one can just dictate directly into that. (Although I have discovered that when CarPlay is enabled then Siri won’t allow it.) Alternatively, it is even easier to get Siri to open a voice memo and speak your thoughts. I use the voice memo option as I think it reduces any temptation to look at the screen. The voice memo is also super-easy if you are out walking or running with headphones that have a microphone.

Make a bookmark

It is possible in some audiobook apps, and the Audible one does this, to press a button and make a bookmark. I use the Bound app for iOS° for DRM-free audiobooks as it has a bookmark function. This is just the digital audio equivalent of turning over the corner of a page and you have to come back later and re-listen to the section and take any notes. This is quick and easy but I have found that I’ve been rubbish at going back and re-listening.

None of these are hugely easy and they often risk additional distractions. As well as the obvious safety concerns I also find it jolts me out of my reverie - both from the book and the activity. More and more I’m not worrying about notes and treating audiobooks as a different experience to reading. I’m not trying to replicate the note taking. If that truly bugs you then you could stick to books that might not need any notes or just let them wash over you. Fiction is the obvious example where you’re less likely to want to take notes. I realise this is unsatisfactory but if I genuinely have an insight while listening to an audiobook then I’m finding it sticks with me long enough to get captured later.


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