“I’d listen to her read a grocery list”: On Audiobooks

It doesn’t take that much endurance to read a picture book aloud. Reading for longer periods of time, however, can be taxing, which makes the work that audiobook narrators do even more impressive. I started listening to audiobooks when I started driving to and from work; I used to commute via subway, where I found that external noise drowned out anything coming through my headphones.

At first, not sure how much concentration I’d be able to spare, I started by re-reading books I’d already read, such as Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, which is performed by the author and a full cast. (It’s excellent.) I moved on to the Hunger Games trilogy, which Carolyn McCormick narrates (she is also excellent). Then I listened to Life by Keith Richards, read by Johnny Depp, Joe Hurley, and “Keef” himself; the switching between narrators seemed random and was somewhat jarring, but each individual reader was very good.

eleanorandpark_audioEventually, I started reading books I hadn’t read before, and I’ve become hooked on audiobooks; as soon as I finish one, I start another. Because my commute is blessedly brief and I’m usually only in the car for half an hour each day, I read a lot of shorter books (7-9 hours), often young adult novels. I’ve started seeking out particular narrators, such as Rebecca Lowman (Eleanor & Park, Rules of Civility) and Morven Christie (Code Name Verity, Burial Rites).

Luckily for me, audiobooks are becoming more popular, and publishers are producing more of them (see “Actors Today Don’t Just Read for the Part. Reading IS the Part,” Leslie Kaufman, The New York Times, June 29, 2013). As for whether listening to an audiobook counts as reading, there is plenty of debate. I would venture to say that as long as one has mastered the ability to read in print, audiobooks are as legitimate a way to consume books as reading them on paper (or on a screen). “We tend to regard reading with our eyes as more serious, more highbrow, than hearing a book read out loud,” T.M. Luhrman wrote in a New York Times  piece called “Audiobooks and the return of storytelling” on February 22. She continued, “The ability to read has always been invested with more importance than mere speech….But for most of human history literature has been spoken out loud.”

TFIOS_audioOne experiences a story differently, and remembers it differently, when hearing it read aloud as opposed to reading the text visually. Partly, audiobooks are a different reading experience for me because I don’t skip over sentences or skim paragraphs; I hear every single word. And a truly talented narrator can bring a book to life: listen to Jim Dale perform the Harry Potter books or Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, or Rebecca Lowman read Eleanor & Park or Rules of Civility. Kate Rudd reading The Fault in Our Stars brought me to tears, though I didn’t cry when I first read the book in print.

I think we are all hungry for stories, whether we read them to ourselves in print, listen to them as audiobooks, or read them out loud to ourselves or each other. If you aren’t an audiobook devotee already, I’d encourage you to give them a try. Libraries usually carry them on CD and sometimes on Playaways, and they are often downloadable in mp3 format too.

7 thoughts on ““I’d listen to her read a grocery list”: On Audiobooks

  1. I have always been a fan of audiobooks – it is like being read to. Also it allows you to do other things (drive, crafts etc.) while reading. I had all the Harry Potter audiobooks growing up and Jim Dale is amazing. I didn’t know he did The Night Circus as well. I love that book I’ll have to check it out!

    • Hi Clare,
      I agree, audiobooks are great to listen to while knitting, cleaning, etc. – anything that requires your hands but not most of your concentration. I highly recommend the audio of The Night Circus – you’ll love it!
      Also, I visited your blog, and you might like to know there *is* a perfume called “In the Library,” but it smells a little musty: http://cbihateperfume.com/shop/perfumes-a-to-z/306

  2. I love this article! Thanks! On a personal note, I am an avid reader, but busy with life — it’s hard to settle in to read sometimes. Especially if I’ve been indoors/working all day and have chores or errands to do or need a nice walk. You just inspired me to prioritize giving audio books a try! I already download e-books from my local library… I’m sure audio books are available there, too. It is very interesting what we consider/don’t consider ‘reading’. Does it requires use of our eyes… if we are still immersing in a book and a story? Great question. Although in any case, we certainly all need story!

    On another note, I’m a high school teacher and newly entering the teacher-librarian role.. and this is an important thing for me to ponder as a teacher/librarian. I’ve occasionally recommended audio books to reluctant readers, with some success… but to hear them described as so loved like their own art form… makes me realize there is something more important here that I may be missing. And maybe should be passing on to students. I know when I delved into the complex world of graphic novels, there was SO much more brilliance there than I ever knew…graphic novels have made me cry for sure.

    Finally, I was totally surprised you talked about becoming enamoured with particular narrators! Never thought of that either! I can see it would be cool to hear a ‘famous person’s voice’ (Johnny Depp or Keith R.), but it’s true a good reader can bring a book to life. I know I read Harry Potter to my kids and did all the voices.. and it was always so cool when they were literally sitting with their knees tucked tight, eyes wide and fearful, totally tense and immersed in their imagining of a dramatic scene.

    Anyway, thanks for a great blog post. As you can see, I’m inspired to go listen to a great book! 🙂

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