Audiobooks

I’m not 100% down with audiobooks. I like them fine, but they’re not books. They occupy a different space from traditional reading that is not necessarily worthless, but neither do I think they supplant traditional reading, and the notion that they do irks me a little. Grumble grumble, what a grouch I am, what an old man who just doesn’t get it, right?

We’re all into audiobooks a bit more than we used to be. We’ve got laptops and tablets and mobiles staring at us during every nanosecond of downtime, and these devices are very capable of playing digital audio files. Most of that is music or podcasts, granted, but audiobooks have experienced a comeback, because it’s a hell of a lot easier to download an audiobook than it was to buy and cart around 8 or so cassettes. And it’s a hell of a lot easier to passively listen to something than it is to read it – or pay proper and full attention to it. You might think I’m being needlessly confrontational, but come on. When was the last time you sat down with an album and listened to it all the way through for no other reason than to listen to the music? How much music do you think you’d listen to if it wasn’t on in the background while you were doing other things, like cooking, cleaning, entertaining or vegetating in front of your computer? Audiobooks may not be background noise to the same extent music is, but they’re not exactly sitting with a book in a quiet space and properly engaging with the text either.

The other day I saw a conversation online where the poster was asking everyone if they felt like listening to audiobooks was ‘cheating’. And of course the majority of the dialogue was dominated by people espousing the virtues of audiobooks, how it’s not ‘cheating’ and how anyone who claims otherwise must be some kind of elitist.

This conversation struck me because it rested on the assumption that reading is some kind of test that you can cheat at in the first place.

My guess is that this attitude has its roots in a secondary school type of learning, where you’re given a list of books and you’re expected to work your way through them. You either read the material and pass or you don’t. I think a lot of people are still feeling the effects of that education, that they’re expected to complete a book and cross it off the list of “Books I Have Not Read” and add it to the list of “Books I Have Read”. And I sympathise, I really do. Who doesn’t want to be well-read? We all want to have read a lot of books (preferably the classics of the western canon) and have lots of opinions on Important Things, but we don’t necessarily want to do what’s required in order to reach that stage: spending a lot of time reading a lot of books.

That’s where audiobooks come in. It’s simply easier to listen to someone else read than it is to read oneself. You can listen on the way to work, while cleaning the house, while waiting at a bus stop without looking like a twat. Your attention can wander and you won’t have to re-read a paragraph, because the story’s still going. Don’t get me wrong, I think audiobooks have many qualities, but this whole “how does listening to an audiobook relate to reading a book” thing? It’s a false comparison. Listening to an audiobook isn’t the same as reading because, well, you’re not reading. You’re listening.

I know it sounds like I’m being pedantic and semantic, but hear me out. Books are written to be engaged with. Perhaps with books that are all plot and dialogue – pure entertainment – the difference is miniscule, but many books demand that you re-read certain passages, or revisit earlier sections when something becomes clearer later on, or pay attention to the form of the words on the page. Not all books are fireside ghost stories that rely on plot alone. If you know me at all, you’ll know there are few things I adore more than a fireside ghost story, but some books a massive puzzle to be worked out and related to and re-examined as your life continues. I just don’t think that kind of book can be fully appreciated by having someone read it out to you while you do your shopping.

I want to read sentences and paragraphs several times without having to rewind and wait for someone to read it out to me. I need to be able to go back and check something instantly so I can get back to where I was with greater understanding. If a paragraph is particularly striking, it’s important to me that I can pull it off the shelf and immediately flip to the highlighted section and examine it in my own fashion.

I sometimes wonder if the reason many are so fond of audiobooks is that they take the effort out of actually reading, and allow our modern, internet-shortened attention spans to consume more books without ever really having to engage with them. “Hey, last week I read 3 books!” you get to say without ever having really read the books, only getting to cross items off a list because you know roughly what the plot is and can remember a couple of lines.

Audiobooks can be very pleasant to listen to, but they’re not the written word. Audiobooks have their own qualities, but the written word has too. It’s not all about top ten lists and message board comments and Facebook statuses.

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