Confessions of an audiobook addict

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I’ll write my annual books review post soon, but one comparison I won’t do this year is format: from a mix of physical books, ebooks and audiobooks in previous years, it is now nearly all audiobooks (I’m not counting reading for work). I came to audiobooks in 2016 after Brexit pretty much ruined listening to the Today programme (as lots have commented, the BBC is incapable or unwilling to deal with false equivalence and flagrant, unabashed liars). Screaming at the radio is only viable for so long. And once I had stopped listening to the Today programme, my Radio 4 listening fell away all together (I still listen to 6music when I’m working).

So I switched to audiobooks. And it turned out I had a lot of time they could fill – my drive to Milton Keynes is about 6 hours, I walk the dog for 90 minutes a day, and I listen for half an hour going to bed. I can easily rattle through 1-2 books a week. Compared with time which you can devote to sit down and actually read, and well, a physical book can hang around for ages. I have sympathy with Hugh McGuire who jokes of his own struggle to read more books:

I’ve been finding it harder and harder to concentrate on words, sentences, paragraphs. Let alone chapters. Chapters often have page after page of paragraphs. It just seems such an awful lot of words to concentrate on, on their own, without something else happening.

But I feel guilty – we have been raised on the purity of reading as a pursuit. Listening to an audiobook isn’t the same as reading I feel, and I’ve experienced people be snooty when I say I’ve read a book and then reveal it was an audio version, like “oh, you haven’t really read it then.” I asked a neuroscientist at a conference recently if there was a difference and she said we form an auditory loop when reading so there is no difference in the way the brain processes the two forms (but perhaps she was just telling me what my little pleading face wanted to hear). Unsurprisingly people have written a few opinion pieces on this. Some studies have shown no difference in comprehension from people who have listened or read and are tested afterwards. Whereas others show that for more complex text, the sort of thing you study, there is a benefit for readers. I’d disagree that audiobooks are passive and reading is active though, I can listen or read passively or actively.

What I did find interesting is that we haven’t always made this distinction and regarded reading physical text as superior. Jack Goody characterised societies as oral or literate, (although that is a simplification) but the distinction may not be clear. In ancient Rome, Starr emphasises the importance of Lectores – these were people who were paid to read texts aloud to wealthy people, while they went on with other business. Not to perform them, but to do the reading when the aristocrat was otherwise occupied and could not physically do it for themselves. They were pretty much manual audiobooks. And they did not make a distinction between this type of reading, and sitting down in your toga and curling up with a good codex yourself.

The prevalence of wifi, smart phones and unobtrusive earphones, combined with abundance of audio content in audiobooks and podcasts, makes me feel that we are entering a similar combined oral/literacy phase socially and moving away from a largely literate dominated one. Given the number of other tasks that only require partial attention (from playing Candy Crush to having your dad talk to you), the opportunity for orality to become prominent is present. And I for one, welcome our new audio-overlords.

9 Comments

  1. I like audiobooks but hate earphones, so remain largely anchored to our literary past and those challenging words, sentences and paragraphs on the page or screen.

    1. Hi Ray, I tend to use just a single bluetooth earbud when walking as I don’t like to be cut off from my surroundings, but it’s good enough for audiobooks (like having someone have a conversation next to you). I don’t find that uncomfortable.

  2. I’d agree that the passive/active distinction is false on an absolute level, but text makes it easier for me to slow down, pause and think, re-read and take notes. With audiobooks, I’m usually listening while doing something else, so thy only get partial attention. But the big difference between audio and text for me is that with audiobooks, the narrator adds a layer of information and interpretation which can impact the story in subtle and dramatic ways. Cormac McCarthy’s attitude towards punctuation creates an ambiguity in his novels which gets lost in narration, for better or worse. The person who voiced James Ellroy’s latest novel, This Storm, used a lot of vocal characterization, so one person sounds like Jimmy Stewart and another like John Houseman. That created images in my head and brought baggage to the story, again for better or worse.

    1. Hi Paul! Yes, you’re quite right – I find ‘experimental’ authors don’t really work as audio, because they are really playing with the format of words on a page. And bad narration can completely destroy any audiobook, so it definitely adds a layer. But a good reader can add to it also – hearing the author themselves for non-fiction is useful.

      1. The author’s own voice is a definite plus. Tressie McMillan-Cottom’s Thick wouldn’t have sounded right in anyone else’s voice. I hope there’s an audiobook award for her.

    1. Hi Amber, yes I too feel saying I’ve read something isn’t quite right, I always add “well, listened to the audiobook”. Thanks for the link.

  3. I too love audiobooks. I got to meet the founder of Audible many moons ago at MIT. I have been a user ever since. Do you remember the original black clam shell shaped devices – pre mp3!

    Just recently I have begun to enjoy the ability to read a book on both Kindle and Audible at the same time and have the reading position sync pretty accurately. Obvoiusly only for books that are worth having two versions of but for books that I will read many times it is a great option.

    1. Hi Euan, thanks for that tip, I’ve never done that (sync kindle and audiobook). As you say, for some books (eg non fiction ones you may want to return to) that is very useful.

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