Audiobooks enable adults to experience the pleasure of hearing a story aloud, but are they fundamentally inferior to their print counterparts?
The first person to read me a story was Emma Fielding, an English actress and narrator for audiobooks.
It was 2003 and the book I had borrowed from the library on a whim was I Don’t Know How She Does It (1992), a novel by Allison Pearson about a woman trying to excel at each of her many roles: investment banker, mother, wife, daughter, friend. I listened on my Discman tucked in my apron pocket while I did housework. The book paints a bleak picture of the cynical fund-management industry. Pre-global financial crisis there were lessons to learn, but I was more interested in the protagonist, Kate, who struggles in a workplace dominated by chauvinistic men.
‘I don’t know how you do it,’ Kate is told by a Greek chorus: her female friends who have given up work, defeated; her male colleagues who would like to see Kate fail too; and the stay-at-home-mother mafia, ever-vigilant for evidence of Kate’s shortcomings.
And Kate is struggling. She has a husband who her friends have dubbed ‘Slow Richard’ and an opinionated nanny is raising the children. Kate finds comfort in an email flirtation with a client.
The story resonated. I had experienced workplaces like Kate’s. I had two daughters who viewed my contributions to their school’s bring-a-plate functions as inferior to those provided by ‘real mothers’: mothers who didn’t work outside the home.
But what made the audiobook listening experience so wonderful was the intimacy of Emma Fielding’s voice in my ear. Emma became Kate, and Kate was there with me while I sorted laundry. Her presence made my chores endurable. It was what audiobook academics call a parasocial experience. I felt like I had empathetic company, although the sensation was illusory.
Her presence made my chores endurable…I felt like I had empathetic company, although the sensation was illusory.
Despite this promising initiation to audiobooks, they did not immediately become my thing. The Discman was cumbersome, limiting listening opportunities to apron-wearing occasions – and the CDs skipped.
Then, in 2006, I needed someone to read me a story. A confluence of life events meant that I craved the comfort reading had always brought me, but lacked the energy to focus on text. By then audiobooks were digital. For a monthly fee I could download a quota to my MP3 player and start listening. Normally wary of such arrangements, I signed up.
More than 10 years later, my digital library houses 326 audiobooks. It is an eclectic collection. There are novels like A Thousand Splendid Suns (2003) by Khaled Hosseini, Rebecca (1938) by Daphne du Maurier, and The Husband’s Secret (2013) by Liane Moriarty; biographies of the rich and famous (Steve Jobs, Lyndon Johnson), as well as a horse (Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand, first published in 2001); memoir, including such standouts as The Hare with the Amber Eyes (2010) by Edmund de Waal, Levels of Life (2013) by Julian Barnes and Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000) by David Sedaris; and works of non-fiction spanning topics from meditation and introversion to high-frequency share trading and the 1919 Paris Peace Conference.
An audiobook runs an average of 11 hours. For a decade, for about seven hours every week, professional audiobook narrators, as well as authors like Helen Macdonald and Malcolm Gladwell and actors like Jeremy Irons and Kenneth Branagh, have read me a story.
Walks with the dog, gym workouts, and plane, train, boat and car journeys have all been opportunities to listen to an audiobook. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) was the soundtrack for a day-long car trip from Adelaide to Melbourne. I drove towards home through drought-stricken Mallee scrub as ‘the man’ and his son, ‘the boy’, walked the deserted post-apocalyptic roads of the novel, seeking the sea and safety. I had the sensation of driving through the story, something the academic Sarah Kozloff says occurs when ‘the movement through the [audiobook’s] narrative is mirrored and amplified by the car’s physical movement through space’.
Around 50 per cent of audiobook listening occurs while driving, but despite the potential sensory upside, such dual tasking can be problematic. In The Road the man and the boy find a basement full of people imprisoned and destined to be eaten by the ‘bad guys’. Would my two heroes escape before the bad guys returned? I was reluctant to overtake trucks, no matter how slow they were travelling, until I found out, a response that my husband in the passenger seat found frustrating.
He took over the driving, and we made better time, but The Road still had some 20 minutes to run when we reached home. Our journey was done; the boy’s was not. His Papa’s death was imminent. We sat parked in the carport until one of the good guys arrived and took the boy under his wing.
Being read a story can also induce sleep, a phenomenon that may explain the popularity of reading to children more than child development or parent-child bonding rationales. (‘I’ll read you one very last book if you swear you’ll go the fuck to sleep’ writes Adam Mansbach in his bestselling satire of children’s bedtime antics.)
For sleep-challenged adults, like me, there are audiobooks. Listening does not require a well-lit room or a seated position. Provided the plot is not riveting, it is easy to doze off. But there are downsides. Having to rewind the next day, trying to the find the point where I fell asleep, is tedious. And audiobook-induced sleep rarely continues undisturbed until daybreak. The night is punctuated by stints of wakefulness filled with snippets of story. It can be disorienting.
I once woke in the wee hours, ear buds still in situ, after nodding off listening to Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (2013). Ursula, the main character, who I thought had drowned, was suddenly alive again. The next day I looked up the plot on the internet. Ursula had drowned. The book reimagines her life after this and numerous other deaths. Ursula half remembers her previous lives, which unsettles her, as the book did me.
I gave up on bedtime instalments of Life After Life, but not on audiobooks at bedtime. Although I almost never re-read a printed book, when insomnia strikes I re-listen to favourites like Richard Ford’s Independence Day (1995). I can happily drift off hearing once more about the hapless Frank Bascombe’s life.
But surely this is not what books are for? Their hypnotic properties? And as for relegating them to the role of soundtrack for prosaic activities like housework: isn’t that insulting to the author? Moreover, isn’t the multi-tasking I’ve described the antithesis of the mindful approach we should be bringing to all our endeavours, if we know what’s good for us? Gentle reader, you might say – if you are generous enough to agree that my audiobook habit qualifies as reading – get a grip, get a book, read!
These and more savage denunciations have been made of audiobooks by critics who argue that listening to an audiobook is a passive undertaking and thus debased compared with ‘proper’ reading. To really read, one must personally decipher and interpret symbols printed on the page in order to imagine and create the voices of the book’s characters. The narrator does this for the audiobook listener and so an audiobook requires less effort and concentration, which is purportedly a bad thing.
[Some critics] argue that listening to an audiobook is a passive undertaking and thus debased compared with ‘proper’ reading.
‘Deep reading really demands the inner ear as well as the outer ear,’ the literary critic Harold Bloom told the New York Times in 2005. ‘You need the whole cognitive process, that part of you which is open to wisdom. You need the text in front of you.’
The author Neil Gaiman dismissed Bloom’s remarks as snobbery and foolishness. ‘I don’t believe there are books I’ve never “read” because I have only heard them,’ he wrote on his blog. ‘You often get more insight into a story or poem by hearing it.’
I agree, but I may have nevertheless internalised the idea that audiobooks are inferior to printed books. When I’m asked whether I’ve read a particular book I qualify my yes with ‘on audio’. Other audiobook habitués seem to feel the same need to explain themselves, often highlighting their strong work ethic. David Sedaris says he loves audiobooks because he is lazy, then mitigates this admission, listing all the chores he zips through while listening.
We audiobook listeners need not be so defensive. Criticisms of our pastime are underpinned more by opinion than evidence, and may have arisen because being read aloud to has come to be associated with certain states – infancy, disability, deprivation – that are undesirable.
And the audiobook industry’s early focus on publishing abridged books did not help their product’s reputation. In 2003, almost half the audiobooks borrowed from libraries were abridged versions. Production costs were kept down by abridgement, but marketing taglines like ‘Books are long and life is short’ and ‘Why read a novel of 700 pages when you could hear the “story” in a matter of a few hours?’ did not endear the audiobook sector to traditional book lovers. Self-help titles also featured in the early catalogues of talking-book publishers.
But audiobook listeners are keen readers of printed books as well. According to Sarah Kozloff in Journal of American Culture, almost half hold post-graduate degrees; 70 per cent are women; and they favour unabridged versions, which now comprise around 80 per cent of purchases. People who listen to audiobooks have remarkably similar reading material preferences to other readers. In 2015, the three top audiobooks borrowed from American libraries were The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. The same three titles were the top ebooks borrowed.
The number of audiobook consumers is growing. Audiobook sales are now worth around $2.6 billion annually and 17 per cent of Americans listened to at least one audiobook in 2014.
People love being read stories. In antiquity, Greeks and Romans kept slaves whose specific responsibility was to read aloud. The therapeutic power of listening to a story was recognised. Physicians in ancient Greece prescribed ‘being read to’ for their patients. Authors read their work at festivals, and when the Roman emperor Augustus had trouble sleeping he called in storytellers.
The tradition of coming together to be read to continued during the Middle Ages: women at evening spinning groups read favourite passages from books aloud and informal readings at inns were common. In the late 19th century, Cuban cigar factory workers hired people, known as lectors, to read them newspapers and novels while they rolled cigars.
Contrary to the claims of critics, audiobooks may not be inherently easier to understand than printed books. The scholar Lucy Bednar maintains that to understand an audiobook we must focus on the sound more closely than we would focus on the text if we were reading. A brain-imaging study supports her thesis. More brain activity seems to occur during listening than reading, possibly because the brain must quickly process and store parts of a heard sentence in order to subsequently glue them back together coherently.
The researcher James Ripley furthers the argument that audiobooks are much more than a second-rate non-visual alternative to printed books. Stories are borne in the minds of their creators, he reminds us.
These refutations of audiobooks’ purported inferiority to printed books are validating. Yet audiobooks do have some shortcomings.
Audio versions of novels can foster a focus on the book’s characters and narrative at the expense of its language. I found the audiobook of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (2013) engrossing. I was charmed by David Pittu’s narration, especially when he voices Boris, the protagonist Theo Decker’s dissolute Ukrainian friend. But I felt underexposed to Tartt’s writing talent. I bought the print book and appreciated the story even more: her words sing on the page as they do in the air.
Superb narration has drawn me to books I would probably never have read in print form. Peter Carey’s Theft: A Love Story (2006) is one. I doubt that I would have found the ocker patois of ‘Butcher’ Boone and his ‘damaged’ idiot savant brother Hugh sufficiently engaging on the page, but the Australian-born Stan Pretty voices their words wonderfully.
Though a narrator whose voice is incongruous with the character can blight an audiobook. The otherwise excellent dramatisation of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate (1959) was spoiled for me by David Tennant’s voicing of the Russian commissar Nikolay Krymov. Tennant retains his Scottish accent and it jars.
I also find audiobooks unsuitable if I want to understand or analyse a complex argument in a work of non-fiction. In The Next 100 Years (2009), for example, the political scientist George Friedman attempts to predict the geopolitical history of the 21st century. Friedman forecasts that Turkey will emerge as a regional power, which seemed far-fetched. I rewound, trying to follow Friedman’s logic, before giving up. Now, when I want to study a book, I get the print edition.
These limitations have not dampened my enthusiasm for audiobooks. Neither am I troubled by suggestions that including audiobook listening in a multi-tasking repertoire is a bad habit, a sign of evil.
I am not distracted. I am exercising autonomy, rejecting boredom, and that feels good.