Thursday, January 7, 2010

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’s The 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 to me 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?


  1. While I am a 99.9% readers, I love audio books for the way they will turn driving into a pleasurable experience. I do have friends who will always 'read' through audio--and I wonder, do they sit and listen. Lay in bed?

    I generally have 3 or 4 books going, and one of them is always my 'car' book. Right now it's SHANGHAI SISTERS which works as an audio book. Best ever: ANGELA'S ASHES, read by the author, Frank McCourt. I'd already read it years before listening to it and listening was a different--and wonderful--experience. David Sedaris should ALWAYS be listened to. And re-reading favorites in audio is always a treat for me.

  2. I still haven't tried listening to an audiobook. But I like the idea of re-reading a book in audio. Or, better yet, listening to a book that is particularly difficult to read. I get impatient, especially when I'm reading a long book.
    I never thought about listening to stories as more natural than reading the words on paper. I suppose it's a switch in my mind that at some point will get flipped, and I'll say: okay, I'm ready to listen.

  3. So here's a question for Dell and Randy and anybody else. What makes a book a "car book"? What's the best criterion for an audiobook? Should it be a an easy book, or a difficult book made easy via listening?