Monday, April 14, 2014

In defense of audiobooks

When you read a book, the story definitely happens inside your head. When you listen, it seems to happen in a little cloud all around it, like a fuzzy knit cap pulled down over your eyes.
Robin Sloan, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

The narrator of Robin Sloan's novel describes his reaction the first time he listens to an audiobook. I don't get it.

I have been listening to books, first on tape and later on CDs, for years. I am rarely without one in my car. While I agree there are certain differences inherent in reading books as opposed to listening to them being read by somebody else, I have never noticed a lack of immediacy in the latter. In either case, the story happens inside my head, not in a little cloud around it.

So what differences do I find? First, there are the practical concerns. With audiobooks, it can be very difficult to go back and "reread" a particular passage. It's tough enough if it's just the previous paragraph you missed because of a distraction, but if it's something in a previous chapter, it's just too much trouble to bother. I like to take notes when I read, marking down page numbers where key characters are introduced, where passages are beautifully written or where some information is found I might want to refer to later. This just can't be done with audiobooks, especially while driving a car.

The best audiobooks, at least for me, are either books I have read before in the traditional way and want to revisit, books so easy I am not likely to even want to take notes or books so difficult I would rather have somebody else read so I can just listen. The first and third of these qualities were true when I listened to Lolita last year. I had read the novel for an English course back in the 1960s, so I knew it to be a great book, but not an easy one to read. So I let Jeremy Irons do the work, and I just enjoyed Vladimir Nabokov's glorious prose. I'm sure I missed something -- with Nabokov, you are bound to miss something no matter how you read him -- but I thought I also gained something hearing, as it were, Humbert Humbert tell his own story. (Irons played Humbert in the 1997 film version of the novel.) In this case, at least, I thought the audiobook was more immediate than the printed version.

All of us listened to stories before we learned to read them by ourselves. We heard children's stories read by parents, teachers or babysitters. We also heard our parents tell stories about their experiences at the end of the day around the dinner table. Humanity as a whole listened to stories long before the invention of either writing or printing. As Michael S. Rosenwald wrote in a recent Washington Post article, "The brain was not designed for reading." Mankind learned first to listen, then to read.

The suggestion in Sloan's novel that audiobooks are somehow inferior to printed books seems a bit strange. It also seems ironic when you notice the ad for the CD version of the novel at the end of the paperback

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