Sunday, March 9, 2014

Listening to Stories

Whether you're talking about hunter-gatherers sitting around a fire, or a toddler nestled in the crook of daddy's arm at bedtime, people first absorb stories through their ears. Humans are listeners before they are readers. It is curious, then, that people tend to look down on audiobooks, isn't it? My son prefers audiobooks, but his friends tell him "that's cheating," as if he's getting away with something. One of my own friends said to me, "You're not really reading books," when I confessed (why was it a confession?) that I listen to books as often as I read them. Of course, audiobook fans are less likely to have this prejudice, but I know I feel slightly embarrassed to admit I listened to, rather than read, a given book. Why do we give audiobooks so little credit?

One reason is an assumption that because audiobooks are "easier," you get less out of them. I found little data to support this theory. It hasn't been well studied, but Forbes reports on one study that indicated no retention difference between audio and visual books. "In some cases, listening offers major advantages over reading, even with material as tough to parse as Shakespeare," the article states. "That’s because an audio book pre-determines an aspect of language called prosody, or the musicality of words. Prosody is how we known that someone is being self-reflective when they ask aloud if they left the gas on (or when Hamlet asks whether 'to be or not to be')."

Saunders narrates his own book: a rare success
Whatever the reason for it, the bias against audiobooks is fading. Audiobook sales have soared as more and more people become aware of their charms. First and foremost for me is the time component: Because I'm able to combine "reading" with "doing," I nearly double my book-consumption rate. Do you know how much of your day requires little to no engagement from your brain? Washing dishes, vacuuming, folding laundry, commuting, walking the dog, cooking, gardening, jogging. We do a lot of activities by rote. You can liberate hours a week for book consumption. If you're like me, you'll also move around more as you listen, wanting to putter and find things to do so you don't have to leave the story. And less sitting is good for your health. See? Audiobooks will help you live longer.

An audiobook performance that blew me out of the water
Now, some books I truly prefer to read in visual form. YA-book narrators are often breathless and squeaky, which reminds me that I am a middle-aged woman listening to a novel for teenagers. I prefer to read those books. But other books really come to life when they're performed. When I first tried Dickens' Hard Times, I found it easy to put down. Then I came across a free version, originally recorded as a book for the blind, on iTunes. I was completely hooked: Alistair Maydon, the narrator, showed me the humor, the pathos, the personalities of the characters. From there I found Far from the Madding Crowd and Wuthering Heights. Those narrators changed the story from mere words marching across a page to a living, breathing thing. A good narrator performs a story, and when you're talking about something dry, or difficult, or written in an older style, a strong narrative performance can change everything.

The difference between reading and listening can come out in other, odder ways, too. Recently, I was reading The Good Lord Bird as I was hiking a snowy trail. There's a particular scene in that book, a gritty situation involving slaves being hanged for attempting a rebellion. I can picture exactly the spot where I was stepping as I listened to those events unfold. When I return to that spot—the 10-foot-tall rocks on the side, the patch of ice that never melts in the shadow, the way the trail curls around the rocks like a cat's tail around its paws—the scene from the book replays in my head. This happens to me frequently when I listen. The heightened emotional state seems to cause me to take mental snapshots of the scene around me, which probably has something to say about the relationship between emotions and memory.

Rewind, Scrubbing, Bookmarks: apps make it easy
One common complaint of audiobooks is that it's too easy to lose your place in a story, or space out and miss what's happening. The Audible app has a bookmarking function, which helps with this. But more critical is the 30-second rewind button. Most listening devices have this, and I use it often. I've learned to catch myself spacing out before I lose more than a minute. Another complaint is the books are too expensive. They can be: Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon is $47.55 on Audible. (It's also 42 hours long, so that narrator deserves every penny, plus maybe a medal.) But the Audible membership makes the books much more affordable—if you buy 24 credits, it amounts to $12 a book, which is no more than a paperback. Amazon, which owns Audible, often offers the matching audiobook for a discount when you buy an e-book. This allows the reader to go back and forth between reading and listening: each device even remembers where you left off, so you don't have to hunt for your place: I love this feature. I also pick up audiobooks from the library and from the iTunes store. Librivox is a site offering free classic novels read by volunteer narrators. If you're a Nook sort, Barnes and Noble has its own audiobook store, with its own special deals. Money doesn't have to be an impediment.

A final drawback can be terrible narrators. If someone last dipped into the audiobook world five or more years ago, you may remember some pretty bad renditions of novels. Try again. Narrators are usually professional actors, and while there are some stinkers in the bunch (review before buying), most narrators really add to a book. Some of my own favorites are Davina Porter (the Outlander novels), Fanella Woolgar (Life After Life), Jim Dale (Harry Potter), and Neil Gaiman, who narrates his own novels. Um, I just realized these are all Brits. Yes, I think I have a preference for those narrators, but I'm listening to the very American Oliver Wyman narrate an Iraq-war novel right now, and I can tell you: he is just as talented as any of my beloved UK-folk.

So what about you? Do you listen to audiobooks, or do you think they're "cheating?" If you like them, how often do you select them over a visual format? Do you have any favorites?


  1. I'm a visual person, and sometimes I have a hard time following a story that is being read to me (unless I'm following the reading). In my experience with audiobooks I sometimes had to stop the recording and rewind. (Maybe it's the ESL thing). Not sure I could concentrate on a narration while doing chores (I usually listen to music). The times I've listened to audiobooks I've been on road trips, but I prefer radio plays (is that what they're called?) Preferably comedy. Having said this, your post made me want to give audiobooks another try, maybe if I do it while I'm running it would take my suffering away, ha!

    1. I have definitely cut down on my music listening. I find the chores sort of do themselves if I'm listening to an audiobook, which is pretty cool ... but it did take me a while to train my brain to receive stories in this way.

  2. I've never been a big fan of audiobooks. Some of it may be for the reasons you list, but I just think I prefer reading over listening to a story. There is a difference when using the senses in learning. It just depends on what your preference is and you'll learn best with that sense. I tend to be more visual and focus less on auditory learning. I miss a lot when I have to focus in on a voice, whether they're telling the story in a lively, engaging format or just merely plodding along. It's good though to see a boom in audio sales. A story is still a story.

    1. It does take some getting used to. I used to have trouble concentrating on audiobooks, too, but for me it's like a muscle: the more I do it, the better I get at concentrating. I get more out of the book because of that concentration, too, I think.

  3. The spacing out while listening is a real problem for me. I space out with all books from time to time. With a printed book, it's easier for me to go back to a part where I know I was still tuned in.

    I love audio books. They're great for road trips, especially. If nothing else, it's a great way for our family to experience a story simultaneously. Podcast stories seem to be getting more popular, too. Have you tried Nightvale? I'm not so keen but wife and daughter are huge fans.

  4. I've never heard of Nightvale. I looked it up on Wikipedia and I'm totally fascinated. Thanks for the tip, AS!


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