I am a firm believer in the value of professional reading as a critical part of professional and personal development. Early in my career, I began maintaining a list of titles that leaders and peers recommended, a list that expanded considerably during my time in CGSC and SAMS. But I was seldom able to whittle it down, let alone think critically about what I was reading. Professional responsibilities, family obligations, TDY travel, and deployments continued to pile on and, probably just like you, professional reading was the victim.
“A course of personal study and contemplation is an essential component for the individual development of every Army professional. Each of us faces busy schedules every day and finding time to read and think is a recurring challenge. But even as we train our units and physically condition our bodies, we must improve our minds through reading and critical thinking.” – General Raymond T. Odierno, 38th Army Chief of Staff
This time crunch came to a head in an assignment that required a daily thirty-five minute commute one-way, coupled with frequent travel. As I pondered options to deal with my ever-growing reading list, I realized that I was sitting in a car for nearly six hours each week. Willing to try anything, I decided to give audiobooks a shot. My test book was former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ memoir, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, a book I had been eagerly anticipating.
The results exceeded all my expectations. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and I actually looked forward to what had been a tedious daily commute – droning along listening to ESPN. Before long, I expanded my listening times to PT, chores around the house on weekends, and walking the dog; all opportunities to maximize my available time. Over the past three years, I have listened to nearly ninety books, all wedged into otherwise wasted bits of time.
The “Cheating” Argument
Still, there are those who think that listening is not reading or that the act of reading promotes better learning. Some simply argue that listening is cheating. My counter is that listening to books is merely an efficient means to accomplish my goal of professional and personal development. Several studies have examined the efficacy of audiobooks, and psychology professor Dr. Daniel Willingham, citing several, finds a high correlation between listening and reading comprehension.
In short, the research suggests that the act of reading has no discernible learning advantage over listening. It simply comes down to personal preference. I should note, however, that in the case of books I have found particularly interesting or useful, I do often purchase the book to facilitate additional study.
Suggestions for Professional Reading
There are many audiobook resources available. Lifehacker.com has a good list. My own reading list falls roughly into the following categories: history/military history; international relations/politics; biographies; and business/economics. I rotate through these categories to maintain a broad perspective instead of focusing on a single subject area.
Over time, I have become protective about how I invest my listening time. I read reviews and try to be selective in the books I choose, but sometimes the magic just isn’t there and listening becomes drudgery. Early on, I would have gutted it out, listening to the very end like it was some kind of endurance test. My attitude has evolved, however, and if the book does not hold my interest, or the reader’s voice grates or annoys (it occasionally happens), I simply jump to the last chapter or conclusion, get what I can from the work, and move on to the next title. I have learned through experience to invest my time enjoyably as well as wisely. This is one of the keys to consistently maintaining my professional listening regime.
Although I began listening to books skeptically and with an eye more toward efficiency, I am now a believer and an advocate for the practice. Everyone is busy; it’s an immutable aspect of our profession. However, we all have slices of time available to us throughout our days and weeks. If one of your goals is to expand your professional reading, but you cannot seem to find the time, try the audiobook alternative – it works.
Professional Reading List, U.S. Army Center of Military History, http://www.history.army.mil/html/books/105/105-1-1/index.html, accessed 12 January 2016.
Daniel Willingham, Is Listening to an Audio book “Cheating?” http://www.danielwillingham.com/daniel-willingham-science-and-education-blog/is-listening-to-an-audio-book-cheating, accessed 12 January 2016.
Alan Henry, Five Best Audiobook Services, http://lifehacker.com/five-best-audiobook-services-1688572545, accessed 12 January 2016.