According to numerous sources, audiobooks are the new best thing to happen in publishing: for six years in a row, they have enjoyed double-digit sales growth. I’m all for more people enjoying books and stories and I’m all for writers enjoying subsidiary rights royalties via expanded uses of their works, but audiobooks and books are as different as movies and books.
You would think it would be obvious that “listening” is different from “reading,” but I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard somebody say, “I read the audiobook.” One interviewee in a recent Shelf Awareness article actually said that listening to audiobooks is reading because otherwise Braille (which truly is reading through the fingers) is not reading. Excuse me?
For many years, I was primarily a playwright, and I loved seeing my words come to life through actors. And until watching the Tony Awards this year, I really believed the theater industry appreciated playwrights—unlike in movies, where most screenwriters have no clout and no ownership of their work. So I was absolutely flabbergasted that the 2018 best plays were mentioned without attribution to the people who birthed them (with the weird exceptions of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh and Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women). In fact, the renowned Tony Kushner, author of Angels in America, which won the Tony for best revival of a play, made his acceptance speech for his company without having been mentioned in the winning announcement! Ouch.
But I’m mostly a novelist these days—so I’m safe, right? Novel writers enjoy something playwrights and screenwriters never do: our books exist as soon as they’re put on the page. No actors, sets, directors, production companies. It’s between my written words and the reader via the alchemy of reading. But as “truthiness” becomes the norm, and readers declare that listening is the same as reading, it seems that the value of the direct relationship between books and readers is being minimized.
Are books going the way of the theater and movies, where writers will eventually not even merit mention? Will books become an event between professional readers, sound engineers, and listeners who are driving or cleaning or missing whole paragraphs when one of the kids spills his Cheerios? And forget contemplative pauses to digest a profound morsel that the writer has spent months on.
Having an actor read aloud, inflecting words with nuances and timing that the reader may not be capable of conjuring, can be a wonderful thing. Not all readers are great readers. And it is truly magnificent to create a new work based on the book. I’m told that the award-winning audio production of George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, with its star-studded cast of 166 narrators, is magical. But it is a new work! And when I spend four years honing a novel, I’m not imagining some intermediating interpreter conveying it to a reader.
According to an Edison Research consumer survey, 65% of audiobook listeners imbibe books while driving; 52% while relaxing into sleep; and 45% while doing housework or chores. According to “The Brain and Reading,” an article by cognitive psychologist Sebastian Wren (published by the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory), reading uses three major sections of the brain: the occipital cortex, where we visualize; the frontal lobe, where we process meaning; and the temporal lobe, where we process sound—our very own internal sound inside our own craniums. Whereas listening activates only two sections of the brain: temporal and frontal lobes.
This bodes well for people who are driving: at least they are not distracting their brains with inner visions while “reading,” but nor are they enjoying the full-sensory and gloriously autonomous experience of a direct hit from words on a page.
On second thought, real reading will never be replaced by listening. That would be just silly, right?
Betsy Robinson’s most recent novel is The Last Will & Testament of Zelda McFigg (Black Lawrence, 2014).