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Curling up with a Good Audiobook

Would I be ruining my reputation as a writer and reader if I revealed that, lately, I’ve been fascinated by audiobooks?  I hope not.  But it has come as a bit of a surprise to me to realize that not only do I emote more when I’m listening to a book, but I feel more engaged in the narrative than I do even when I’m curled up in a comfy chair with a good book on a rainy day.

Listening to the excellent audiobook of Kathryn Stockett’sThe Help, I found myself gasping, or laughing, and even saying “oh no!” to my empty car.  Occasionally, I’d say something to Aibileen or Skeeter, as if they were sitting in my passenger seat, telling me what had just happened to them.  I finished the book while in the middle of a long row on my rowing ergometer.  When the Audible folks came on to tell me they’d hoped I’d enjoyed the book, I came to a dead stop, aghast that there wasn’t going to be more to the story.  For several days afterwards, I missed hearing the voices I had come to know so well (and they are superb).  Where were Aibileen, Skeeter, and Minny who had cast a fascinating and moving parallel world out into mine?

I can imagine your objections.  What I’m describing, you’ll say, is what happens when we read a book.  It’s not about the listening, you’ll say.  But I’m not so sure.  Like many avid readers, I have always felt completely immersed in the writer’s fictional world I’m recreating in my head.  And I’ve often, if not always, had that odd dream-wakened feeling of displacement when I finish a book and have to return to my actual present.  But there is something about listening to a book read tome that is very, very different.  Read well, that is.  There are, as many would agree, few worse things you can do to a book than have it read by someone whose voice or attitude are all wrong.

So what is it about listening that makes it so pleasant?  Listening certainly has nothing to do with the coziness we often associate with reading.  Listening to The Help—and before that to actress Emma Fielding’s wonderful performances of Rebecca and Jane Eyre—I was never particularly comfortable.  I was either exercising or cooking or driving.  And while I do love to drive, New England traffic doesn’t always make for a pleasant experience.  So it wasn’t about the comfort.  But it was about that imagined person, sitting in the passenger seat, telling me a story.  I could no more ignore Aibileen than I could ignore my husband, my kids, or my best friend if they were regaling me with their latest experience.

Of course we are all listeners before we are readers.  Taking in narrative by hearing the words must be hard-wired in our brains.  We have to adapt to the printed word, in a process that neurologists say is not natural.  In a way, in the long history of narrative, the period of the Silent and Solitary Reader is a relatively short one.  It’s only with the late-nineteenth-century advent of cheaper books and better light that readers could take a book to a corner and read it alone.  Even Jane Eyre who takes her book to the curtained-off window-seat would have had the novel of her life read aloud in a gas-lit drawing room.

It’s possible that audiobooks signal a return to a “truer” way of reading, rather than a new departure.  Not that I can imagine the printed (or digitized) word ever being supplanted by the sound file.  Still, it’s a seductive thought, don’t you agree?  Imagine all those drivers soothed by elegant prose, home cooks uplifted by an engaging story.  Commuting could turn into communicating—all from listening to a book.

Which are you: listener, reader, or both?  What are your favorite audiobooks? Which books would you love to hear read aloud?

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"Books on Tape"

I still call audio books "Books on Tape," although they are now CDs or digitalized into an iPod.

I enjoy listening to audio books in the summer, when I do most of my car travel. I often remember the last sentence I'd heard before leaving the car to run an errand, and look forward to listening to the next sentence.

The problem is iPod is that I can't stop and come back to a particular spot in the listening. There is no way to navigate to the beginning of a chapter.... CD are a better option, but tape cassettes were better yet. I could pick up exactly where I stopped, and I could unwind just a bit if I became distracted by traffic or a fly that entered the car.

Overall, though, in digital listening, I cannot control the pace. The reading is modulated, paced to articluate each word. The result is that it takes longer to listen to a book than to read it--and I am a slow reader. It must feel a lot longer to a fast reader....

But that is still a better use of 10-15 hours of driving.


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Talia, thanks for the

Talia, thanks for the comment. I agree that audiobooks have a downside in that you can't skim or speed up, and that sometimes it's difficult to find a passage you admired and listen to it again. On my iPod, I've found that I can always click on the tiny book icon and flip to a list of chapters, where I can identify my spot in the book. I do this from time to time so that if something weird happens and I lose my place, I'll be able to find it relatively easily. Plus there's that handy icon that let's you play back the previous thirty seconds--and you can keep going back and back, thirty seconds at a time, for as long as you like, until you find that memorable phrase.

You mention your reading speed. I too am a slow reader--but in a way that makes me a perfect audiobook customer: I always hear what I'm reading (and I mean reading traditionally) in my head as if someone is speaking the words. So I'm already sort of playing an audiobook in my head, all the time. (Yes, I suppose you could say that I hear voices!)

At the end of the day, though audiobooks aren't always perfect, I'm with you: they're a great way to spend ten or so driving hours.