On Audio Books and Reading

In a heated post, Scott takes audiobooks to task, pointing out that the audio book experience ain’t tantamount to reading. “Listen Jim,” writes Scott, “and all other audiobookphiles out there: If I can barely wrap my little mind around Vollmann while I’m holding the book right before my face and re-reading each sentence 5 times each, how in the hell am I going to understand it if some nitwit is reading it to me while I’m brewing a cappuchino on my at-home Krups unit?”

While I would agree with Scott that there’s a fundamental difference between reading a book and listening to a book, I don’t necessarily believe that audio books should be completely discounted. Personally, I’ve found that reading a book aloud (or hearing another person read a book aloud) allows one to discover or familiarize herself with a book’s particular cant and rhythms. To some degree, it’s a bit comparable to only experiencing a play on the page. Sometimes, the intonations, the delivery and the visual nature of the staging leads the mind to frame the narrative in a new context and unearth a subtext that may not have been as readily apparent from a strict read.

The problem then with audio books, aside from the fact that rewinding can’t beat the exactitude of rereading a specific passage on page, is not necessarily the content, but in the way that the work is often delivered by the author. Too many audio book producers make the mistake of enlisting the wrong voice to read the work. And let’s face it: some authors, even though their text scintillates, are pretty damn horrible readers. (Without naming names, I’ll just say that if you go to enough readings, you experience this unfortuante phenemonon repeatedly. I would even suggest that this is an obstacle that may prevent poetry from being completely accepted. For more on this subject, I refer you to Mark Twain’s famous essay, “How to Tell a Story.”)

Further, for many people (particularly Southern Californians), the audio book serves as a surrogate to listening to an obnoxious FM radio DJ blather on during rush hour. While I bemoan the idea that this may be a person’s sole exposure to a book (as Scott says, the text is the thing and I would add that, if you are a supremely active reader, nothing beats copying passages, looking up words and references, or taking notes to understand an author’s intent further).

The problem here is that the audio book experience isn’t the same as a reading experience. But this does not mean that listening to the text of the book while driving and then returning home to study it further is without value. Further, comfort reads and potboilers may, artistically speaking, offer nothing more in the way of entertaining fluff and, on the whole, may be better experienced in one listening. From this perspective then, the audio book serves as a better use of one’s time, even if the sanctity of reading may be compromised in the process.


  1. Ed,

    Man, I just wanted to have a good Thursday rant, but I guess I’ve touched off a point of debate.

    I agree with you that audio books can be good for some things, and in certain cases I’m willing to believe that the experience can be pretty cool.

    I guess my issue is just that I want to give books their due. I’d like to offer them the respect I think they deserve and, well, if I’m listening to the audio than I feel like I’m disrespecting the book. Some books I’ll disrespect–“comfort books” or maybe some kind of fact-oriented non-fiction book that isn’t really that good–but others, I mean, c’mon. We want to treat these works as art and I’m not willing to compromise with the way they should be experienced.

  2. Edward:

    I’m with you.

    Of course, listening is not a replacement for reading, as seeing a movie based on a novel doesn’t substitute for the book.

    While I was reading Birds without Wings I listened to the audio “version” and it was quite helpful in fixing a lot of the non English names in my memory. Since then I have listened to stuff I have read with great pleasure.

    Recently I listened to Lorrie Moore’s intro to Best American Short Stories 2004 and Thom McGuane’s Gallatin Canyon and Ian McEwan reading the first chapter of Enduring Love.

    Also Sean Penn’s rendering of Dylan’s Chronicles.

    All good stuff.

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