hearing books

As a long-time podcast enthusiast, I am somewhat reluctant to admit that I have also recently joined the audiobook bandwagon in a big way. I don’t just dabble in audio, I utterly gorge on them, often listening to books on 2x speed just so I can change my Goodreads status from “Currently Reading” to “Read” more frequently. Somedays I can even hear my mom admonish me in the back of my mind, “Don’t eat so fast! No one is going to take it away from you, swallow first!” I know that no one is going take them away from me (I know that Amazon is pretty evil but I can’t envision a single scenario in which it would behoove them to take these sweet audio morsels away from me, at least from a business standpoint, but then again, they aren’t in the business of making money, so maybe), but yet I binge away, ignoring my initial impulse to hate them.

Because the truth is that while I have really enjoyed these past few months of audiobook bliss, I have reached the stage in my relationship where those nagging, inevitable questions become impossible to suppress. The honeymoon phase is officially over and I must face the music, or um, the audiobook. I find myself staring at my bookshelf in my room thinking, “This is fun, but will it last forever, is this a forever kind of love?” or “If audiobooks are good for me, why am I ashamed to tell my friends about my new relationship?” And most importantly, “Am I cheating on my REAL books?” But audiobooks are real books,…right? To get to the bottom of this relationship crisis, I’d like to propose a few questions about the nature of audiobooks which I hope will be familiar to those of you who like me, find themselves in unfamiliar waters, willing to give this new(ish) medium a chance, but worried that the tides could change at any moment.

  1. First and foremost, let’s address the obvious first: why am I hiding, or at least reluctant to endorse, my relationship with audiobooks? To clarify, I haven’t been listening to Fifty Shades of Gray or anything particularly libidinous, especially given that most of my audiobook listening happens on public transit which would make such an undertaking potentially awkward. The short answer is that audiobooks are fundamentally different from physical books and their digital counterparts in that I am not actually reading, I’m listening. This seems obvious and I feel stupid even writing it, but the first step to making peace is acknowledgment. If I am ever going to move past this suspect locus in my relationship, I’m going to have to accept audiobooks for who they are and what they have to offer me – a listening experience, not a reading one. Which leads me to the next question….
  1. Does medium matter? As long as a book’s contents are being transmitted by some means into my brain, does it matter if it goes through my eyes or my ears? I have always been proud to consider myself “output-agnostic.” I try my best to avoid judging content by its container (books, ebooks, journals, magazines, comics, blogs, poetry on the back of a bathroom stall door), but lately I cannot deny this nagging suspicion that somehow when I’m listening to the book as opposed to reading it with my eyes, my ears are less capable at focusing my brain on the important parts. “Oh, look at that bird over there! What an interesting hat! Shoot, did I forget my lunchbox at home? Darn, I missed what Gloria Steinem just said, let me rewind this audiobook a bit and try to pay attention.” The audiobook words literally go in one ear and out the other as my mind turns to more pressing matters, an experience I seldom have while reading with my eyes. This happens (I think) because I am expending much more mental energy visually processing text and consequently, there is less mental space available for digressions when my eyes are constantly anticipating the next sentence or reflecting upon the last one. But does this always happen with spoken word literature, that inevitability of drifting off? In short, no. Reading a book aloud has always been a much more personal experience which necessitates occasional eye contact or at least reciprocal acknowledgment that the reading should continue. Sharing spoken word literature is inherently a collective experience, one which requires both the reader and the listener to create the book in its spoken form. But the audiobook goes on existing even when there is no listener to hear it, which is why I feel totally justified in letting my mind wander. Whenever I miss those last few sentences because I was stealthily trying to snap a photo of pugs in a raincoat on the subway, I can just hit rewind and pick up at the exact moment when my mind found a more important task. For me, that audiobook just exists forever in the abyss so there is no pressing need to savor the moments in hearing it. Technically the same is true of physical books as well, but at least I don’t need a rewind button (or any button) to find myself back to a sentence on a page. Which brings me to question three.
  1. Are audiobooks lesser books? All the preceding points, in conjunction with the following rapid-fire insights, have lead me to conclude that maybe so:
  • I cannot lend you my audiobook to prove to you how great it is (at least I don’t think so). This is probably good news to my friends who are sick of leaving my house with an arm full of books that I demand they “absolutely must read immediately” and various other unsolicited reading-related opinions.
  • Even if I can lend you the audiobook or you decide on your own to purchase it, we may have completely different experiences NOT because of the content, but because of our unique reactions to the reader’s voice. I cannot tell you how many times this has happened, especially during a book club meeting. While I personally love the sound of Davina Porter’s voice reading Outlander, others imagined that Claire should sound younger and thus their reading experience was somewhat diminished because expectation did not match reality. Of course this too can happen while reading physical books, but the added layer of a narrator’s voice just gives us one more element to potentially critique.
  • Not all books are suitable for audio adaptation, especially one of my favorite genres: super dense historical tomes. This conclusion was reached after running a test on one of my personal favorites, Ghost Wars by Steve Coll, a fact-laden history of the covert wars in Afghanistan that fueled Islamic militancy and sowed the seeds of the September 11 attacks. Having read the book twice, I decided to listen to the audiobook after noticing it had consistently high ratings on Audible. Boy, was I disappointed. While the narration was excellent, the lack of footnotes left me feeling lost inside a sea of information. This book, and many like it, cannot stand alone without the evidence that supports many of the claims, making the bibliography essential. And let’s be honest, no one wants to listen to a bibliography. But also, there are even some works of fiction that are awkward to adapt for audio, including another of my recent favorites You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman. For the sake of avoiding spoilers, I’ll just mention that reading this book can be incredibly uncomfortable, for example, the scene in which one of the main characters eats an entire braid of her friend’s hair  and then proceeds to describe how a pound of hair feels digesting in her stomach. I cannot imagine it being any less awkward listening to the scene as opposed to reading it, but let’s just say that I’m glad I was not listening to this unfold next to an old lady on public transportation (as I certainly would have been if I had been listening on audio) because my reaction was complete repulsion. Those members of my book club who listened to this book on audio absolutely hated it and could not get past these unsettling scenes, whilst those of us who read the book loved it, being able to put it down when “shit got real.” I can think of countless other examples, but the moral of the story is that all books are not suitable candidates for audio adaptation, so how do we go about picking which books we read and which ones we hear? I am still not sure.
  • Is this just another trend? If so, what is going to happen to all these audiobooks I’ve purchased? Will they disappear in ten years? Probably not, but I think about object permanence often, especially in relationship to the irrational fear that someone is going to take away my books or that they will seize to exist if I don’t acknowledge them often. If you are reading this, I’m sure you know the feeling all too well. Is it reasonable? No. Is it real? Very.
  1. If I am comfortable admitting that I think audiobooks are, at least for me, somewhat lesser, is it still okay to have a relationship with them, or is this honeymoon really over? My final verdict is yes. While I’ll always prefer physical mediums, mostly because I love leaving marginalia and loaning books to friends, there are still many benefits to this other, mostly positive relationship. First and foremost, I can read/listen anywhere, even while walking! I don’t know about you, but if you try to read a book while walking on the streets of Boston, someone might push you in the harbor for being an inconsiderate asshole. Also, I can read/listen in the car on long road trips with others, which usually prompts fascinating conversations. It isn’t often we are at the EXACT same place in a book as someone else, so it can be fun to surmise together about what will happen next. Lastly, audiobooks appeal to a demographic of both new readers and struggling readers, which means we are bringing more readers into the fold. From a disability and usability standpoint especially, this is exceptional news. Without audiobooks, two dyslexic members of my book club would be unable to participate which would truly be a loss as we all value their participation and input highly.

In regards to the status of my relationship with audiobooks, it’s complicated, but enjoyable and productive. No relationship is perfect, and neither is this one. But ultimately, the benefits greatly outweigh the drawbacks, so for now, I am committed to seeing where this relationships goes, even if it does not last forever.