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.