Saturday, January 9, 2010

Are Audiobooks really reading?

I recently posted a review of the Audiobook of You Were Always Mom’s Favorite, and that combined with signing up for these Challenges, most of which have rules about whether or not audiobooks count as reading made me think about this question, which I've been asked a lot.

Listening to audiobooks is certainly different than reading. I have particular types of books I prefer for to listen to. I most definitely want my audiobooks to be unabridged, and I really prefer nonfiction. Normally with an audiobook I can’t listen to the whole thing at once. It’s in spurts of 20 minutes, 45 minutes, or 2 hours. Starting and stopping without losing the narrative thread or forgetting characters is difficult. Particularly when you can’t just flip back to the beginning to remind yourself who people are and their relationship to one another. I also am not a big fan of narrators doing multiple voices. I’ve heard of some that are great at it, even the ones of other genders, but I have rarely experienced that myself. Also sometimes with nonfiction, the audio version can almost be better. I did think David Sedaris was funny already when I ran across an audio of Naked. Well after that, I found him twice as funny as before. I discovered that without his tone of voice and inflection, I was missing half the jokes. Another book that was much improved upon the listening to it was Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. It’s mostly a series of humorous commentaries on politics, so frequently Mr. Franken was commenting on a politician’s speech. In those instances on the audio, we’d either get an excerpt with the actual politician saying his speech, or (preferred), Mr. Franken doing his imitation of the politician reading his speech (hilarious.) These speeches likely would have fallen flat on the page but were the highlight of the audiobook.

The other reason I think audiobooks are really reading is thinking back to all the wonderful times my parents read to me as a child. Would anyone say that I didn’t read The Little House in the Big Woods until I was 8, just because prior to that it had been read to me? Doubtful. Most people recognize the value of reading books aloud to children. So why is reading books aloud to adult discounted?

The best audiobook I’ve listened to was The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. I was so touched and moved by the narration, and so frequently did the narrator’s tone convey deep sadness and grief that I repeatedly checked the audiobook case to confirm it wasn’t Ms. Didion herself reading it (no, it was Barbara Caruso.) It felt so intimate, as if Ms. Didion was telling this story to me, personally, that I think I wouldn’t have felt reading it on the page.

When I was the New England sales rep for my company, driving all over the Northeast every other week, I went through audiobooks like crazy. There were times on the New York Thruway that the audiobooks were the only things keeping me from driving off the road and killing myself. Plus, while working 80-100 hours a week, that was the only way I could get any reading at all done. And it’s important to be able to answer someone when they ask what you’ve been reading lately, when your job is selling books.

I have a segment of Steve Martin’s memoir Born Standing Up, in my “favorites” playlist on my iPod, when he sings an increasingly silly song. My favorite line is “be obsequious, purple, and clairvoyant.” Another hilarious moment that wouldn’t be half as funny in print.

I wish the selection was better. Once I’ve eliminated all the abridgements, fiction, business books, self-help, and religion, I’m left with a pretty short list. The few times I tried renting one from the library I was sorely disappointed in their selection as most people seem to disagree with me strongly and prefer fiction (mostly genre fiction no less which is not something I read much at all.) But one advantage to the limited selection is that I often listen to books on audio that I wouldn’t listen to otherwise, such as Complications by Atul Gawande. I had no idea what this book was about but I picked it up at a book festival for only a couple of dollars. Now he’s one of my favorite authors and I am anxious harassing my MacMillan rep about his next book (comes out this month!) I also never would have read I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron, or Babyproof by Emily Giffin except that I ran across those audios. And I certainly wouldn’t have read Teacher Man by Frank McCourt which is now another favorite. I can certainly see why he won several Grammy Awards for his narration, although it still hasn’t inspired me to crack Angela’s Ashes (I read the first 10 pages when it first came out, wanted to kill myself, and put it down.)

Sometimes audiobooks are a person’s only option. With the decline of free time and reading today, I encourage them greatly. I hope they can maybe be a gateway book to get a long time non-reader and turn them into a reader. I remember being 12 and listening to “The Jellicle Cats” by T. S. Lewis and “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” by Mark Twain on a tape I’d gotten from Cricket Magazine. I think any way a book is read, it is read. Audiobooks are books too.


Kristen said...

See, I think that given that a different porttion of your brain is engaged when listening as opposed to reading words on a page that they are two very different things. Of course, I loathed being read to as a child and more than that, abhorred reading to my own children. It was a day of celebration when all of them could read on their own and no longer needed me to read to them. But then we've long since established that I'm a freak. ;-)

Eva said...

Atul Gawande has a new book coming out this month?! OMG, that's SO friggin' exciting!

Unlike you, I prefer listening to fiction on audio, since I like to engage more with my nonfiction, and I'm much more likely to reread a bit/flip back to reference something with nonfiction. But I do love audiobooks, and I do think it's silly when people say they're not reading. What else would you call it? ;) Of course, I also think it's really odd when challenge hosts say that 'rereads don't count' unless it's something like 'read new-to-you-authors.' I tend to avoid those challenges, lol.

(And have you listened to Nora Ephron reading her "I Feel Bad About My Neck" essays? It was a wonderful experience!)

Carin Siegfried said...

Eve, yes I really enjoyed Nora Ephron's book too (and yes, on audio!) The new Gawande is called The Checklist Manifesto, and it looks like books are out already although selling so fast that it could be hard to find.