On the Validity of Audiobooks
I’ve loved audiobooks for years. I first discovered them in high school, when I began getting debilitating migraines. My aura made me too sensitive to any kind of light (including the flickering of a television screen against my closed eyelids), but I could handle an audiobook as long as the volume was turned down low. When I wasn’t ill, I enjoyed listening to them while I was crocheting or cooking, and later when my migraines disappeared but my fibro remained, they became a life-saver during the really bad days. Also, I found that adding an audiobook to my bedtime routine was the most effective cure for my insomnia.
While I discovered audiobooks due to health reasons, I love them for so much more than that. They are a different experience from reading a hard copy, they engage my brain in a different way and often times help me look at a book from a new angle. So imagine my surprise when I joined the book blogging community and occasionally encountered posts that were, to say the least, skeptical about audiobooks. I’ve seen people debating whether they should ‘count’ as reading for years now, but a post at Literary Transgressions last week is what finally made me decide to write my own audiobook manifesto, as it were. (But ladies, don’t think I’m picking on you!)
I think it’s insulting to say that reading a book via listening to it isn’t real reading. Yes, it uses a different sense…auditory instead of visual. But so does braille, which depends on touch. Would you argue that a blind person has never really read, because the words come to their brain via their fingers? That somehow, the act of reading with their fingers makes their brain have to work less to interpret the book? Because that’s the same argument I’ve seen over and over regarding audiobooks. Just replace the ‘fingers’ with ‘ears.’ Balderdash.
When I’m reading a piece of paper, I can choose how much of my brain I’m committing to the task. Sometimes I skim, zoning out. Sometimes I go over every single word, giving each one my complete focus. Most often, I’m somewhere in the middle. And my options for focusing are exactly the same when I’m listening to words. I firmly believe that there’s nothing about audiobooks that inherently makes them less of a challenge than paper books. It’s all in the intent of the reader, as it always is.
Yep, sometimes I’m listening to an audiobook, and I look up five minutes later and realise I haven’t processed a word that’s been said. So I have to go back a few minutes, and pick up the train. But that happens to me with paper books as well…I’ll get to the end of a chapter, and have no memory of what happened for the last six pages or something. So, I flip back and reread. I don’t really notice that I have more of a tendency to zone out in one format than another.
Of course, audiobooks do give some differences. For one thing, I can never speed-read them. I can never think, “Gee, I really want to finish this chapter before I have to leave to run errands, so I’m just going to speed up my reading.” I spend more hours with an audiobook than I would with a paper one of comparable length. Now, I’m not one of those people who think that reading slowly is automatically richer (that’s a post for another day). But, that extra time means that I live in the book’s world for longer. I can play there, noticing little details. I let the story unfold as the author wrote it, no flipping ahead to see what might be in store for me.
Also, and this is the big one, listening to an audiobook inserts another person between you as the reader and the author: the narrator (unless, of course, the author’s narrating herself, which is usually great*). I find that, as long as I’m going into an audiobook blind (aka it isn’t a reread), I can adjust to most narrator’s styles within an hour or so. If after that time, I’m still incredibly annoyed by the narrator’s voice, I usually just give up the audiobook and resolve to try a hard copy instead. But honestly, this has only happened a couple times in all of the years I’ve been an audiobook fan. Most of the time, the productions are handled really professionally, and it’s actors who are hired as narrators, so they know what they’re doing. Yep, they add inflections to their reading, because they’re not robots. But the ideas for the inflection and tone come from the author’s writing; they’re not simply imposed on the whim of the narrator. So there is an extra layer to my reading experience, but I find it to be less influential than I might have supposed.
A paper book and an audiobook are still two different mediums. Sometimes, I find that a book that didn’t work for me all that well in paper comes alive in audio and vice versa. But I don’t think that’s because audiobooks are ‘easier.’ I think it’s because some authors’ writing sounds even better spoken aloud. Or because, since I’m rereading a book, my expectations are far different from my first read. Are there differences between the way that I experience the two types of books? Certainly. But I don’t think that those differences come in easy categories like easier or harder, more work or less work. To me, it’s an odd high horse to choose that has people look down on audiobooks, to view them as lesser than paper books. And to argue that I haven’t read a book because I used my ears instead of my eyes? Well, that just strikes me as silly. I think reading is an inclusive enough term that we should be able to find room to welcome those who experience books through braille or audio.
What do you think about audiobooks? Do you listen to them? Why or why not? Do you ever feel judged as an audiobook listener?
Footnote One: I say usually because I ended up having to stop listening to Farenheit 451, because Ray Bradbury’s voice grated on me so much.