I’ll confess: I’m an audiophile. I love listening to audiobooks. And for five years, I’ve tried to keep it quiet, as though it were a drinking problem.
Why would someone who has a degree in literature, who runs a distinguished 160-year-old publishing company, secretly ingest so many books on audio? But I’m not the only one who’s turning to audio: recent stats show that while e-books are in a slow but steady decline, audiobooks are popping, with 20% sales growth in 2015, to over $1.7 billion. In 2015 there were 35,574 audiobooks published—9,630 more than in 2014.
And yet almost everyone I know (except, of course, those as addicted to audio as I am) has contempt for listening to a book. Isn’t that what children do, those who can’t read? Why would an educated adult want to have a book read to them? It’s so unsophisticated. It isn’t reading, my friends and family members pronounce with clear disdain. Don’t say you’ve read a book if you’ve listened to it!
And, by the way, they will also say, this isn’t what the author intended: the book is meant to be read by an individual, in her or his own head; when you listen to it, someone else is interpreting the text.
True. I concede that. On the other hand, I would argue that the great tradition of writing can be traced to an oral tradition of storytelling (see Homer). Much the same argument was made when Bob Dylan got the Nobel.
And while it’s true that most of us heard books read to us before we could read ourselves, that doesn’t necessarily infantilize the experience of having a book read to you: some of us can’t read a print book (for any one of dozens of reasons, including a spectrum of disabilities); many of us continue to love the experience of hearing the text.
That great tradition of reading aloud continues in stage performances and bookstores across the country, even if it has slipped away in Cuban cigar factories (a pity). Of course there’s the unmatched experience of having a poet read her own work—or his in the case of Seamus Heaney (and what great fortune that we have his voice and wonderful accent preserved on audiobooks). Audiobooks read by the poets themselves are not simply recitations of the poems printed in the collections, but rather a replica of an actual poetry reading, with the poets introducing each poem and chatting about context and process. And there you certainly get the experience that the author intended.
But it isn’t really reading: reading requires work, listening is lazy, someone else is doing the hard part. And I like to read real books, not digital matter; the look of the words on the page is important. Again, these are valid points, I would concede. And it’s true that I often find myself turning on an audiobook at the end of a long day, when my eyes are too fried to stay open. It’s lazy, I recognize, but I am getting in 20 or 30 more minutes of a book when I would otherwise simply have to close my eyes and sleep, or pry them open with toothpicks to zone out in front of another episode of Transparent.
I never fold laundry or chop onions anymore without a book playing in the background. Cruising the aisles of the grocery store has never been so much fun (in truth, until audiobooks, it was never fun at all). Long walks and—above all—long car or train rides (for those of us who can’t read in any moving vehicle, even if we’re not driving it) have now become precious book time. I’ve literally welcomed traffic jams. They get me to the next chapter. So yes, lazy is one way to look at it. The other is making the most of your time.
I haven’t stopped reading print books (because I’m fortunate enough that I can—I can afford them and access them and make time for them), but I’m reading more than twice as many books, now that I listen to them. In fact, I end up buying print copies of most of the books I listen to if I love them, though I don’t know yet whether, when it comes time to reread them, I’ll want to pull down the print copy or pull up the digital audio. Maybe both.
Helene Atwan is the director of Boston-based Beacon Press, which has just launched Beacon Press Audio.