audiobooks
Books Culture

Up for audition – can audiobooks compete with the written word?

Anyone out there who consumes virtually any advert assisted media, in the form podcasts, cable TV, cinema and so on, has probably heard of Audible. Everyone knows that if you sign up now with so-and-so’s voucher code, you’ll get your first month free! It’s unusual, given how widely consumed audiobooks are, that I’m onlyreally referring to this one company in a significant market, but it would be spurious to present ‘alternatives’ when Audible is essentially the only presence that matters in this industry. While bookshops aren’t the giants that they once were, all slowly falling to the Prime mover (you know who I mean), there’s still recognisable diversity in the ways to buy books. This used to be the case for audiobooks too. You can still find the last vestiges of these titles, the smallest number of which might be browsed at your nearest Waterstones on outdated CDs, marketed mostly at those who never opted into the smartphone whirlpool that has us all upgrading with alarmingly accelerating frequency.

In a more innocent time, from quite a young age, I dragged my parents to the local library almost every other day (nerd, I know), not so much for the print books, but for their audio editions. As probably the only time I can call myself an ‘early adopter’, this then infant technology lived up to the name it sometimes still goes by among older generations: ‘books on tape’. I took my Walkman cassette player – later upgraded to disk, but perhaps my parents were unwilling to make that heady leap to CD (or maybe I’m just old)– and I would be flipping tapes all the way home, selected from the mountainous pile I had loaned. Once the local library had been exhausted (each book listened to at least twice), we headed to the central one, and on, and on it went.

This probably seems a fairly banal, unremarkable story. It is, but for the impact it had on my reading. Audiobooks allowed me – could allow us all – to enjoy books we would never otherwise attempt, whether it be because of age, ability, or accessibility. I worked my way through books quite a way above my reading age, but, as such, developed my comprehension much faster than had I just stuck with The Magic Key at primary school.

For six months of my gap year, I worked in a bookshop with quite an elderly population in the surrounding area. Spouses and family of partially sighted or blind relatives would come in looking for two things: large print and audio versions of virtually any book out there. Time after time, we told them the same things; much as we were desperate to keep bookshops relevant, Kindle and Audible were the only way to find more than a microscopic number of these titles. Nor should that be resented; it’s far easier, for example, to find new books on Audible, which often facilitates simultaneous releases with print, than it is in Braille, allowing people with vision impairments access to a whole world of content they might never have been able to enter. The same is true for those with learning disabilities or attention deficit issues. Whether the latter are associated with pre-diagnosed conditions or simply the rise of instantly gratifying media that makes focus on a print book much harder, I am not qualified to say.

One thing I can say, though, is how little time we ought to have for snobbery concerning audiobooks. The audio vs. ‘real’ book distinction should have died some time ago, yet it persists still. The keystone to the debate appears to be the perception of audiobooks as a soft option. The irony, though, is that the objection I hear most commonly from potential users who are put off is that they find it hard to focus on the narrative. The answer to both of these issues seems to me to be the same: audiobook ‘reading’ is a subtly different skill from print consumption. It requires time and practice, just as when we first learn to read conventionally. There are many engaging literary debates to be had over whether or not we can consume audiobooks ‘objectively’, given our reading is influenced by a narrator. However, traditional reading is influenced by mood, surroundings, even the type of paper used for printing. We learn, if we are reading academically, to set these things aside. So is the case with audiobooks. The two longest books in my Audible library come in at 72 and 43 hours each. I doubt that many would suggest that making it through either counts as a ‘soft option’. In any case, the main concern will never be academia. If a commuter has always had the urge to read Middlemarch but has never had the time to open a book on the train, nor the space in their bag to fit such a weighty tome, that audiobooks allow them to finally do so is a fine thing indeed. 

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Tom Martland

While not studying, Tom (he/him) has written across a range of subjects, including national publications in engineering and arts sectors - primarily for the Musical Theatre Review. He is Secretary of the Oxford Socratic Society and often stays up too late arguing about ethics.