Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Book Notes: Audio Books

There is a debate going on over on LibraryThing about whether listening to an audio book "counts" as reading the book. (Those who are LibraryThing members can read it here.) I think the very contention is silly. But I was surprised to find how few readers in the "Literary Snobs" group enjoyed audio books -- although maybe, given the name of the group, they were just afraid to admit it. I joined the group just for the sake of chiming in, and a few other audio book fans came forward after I did. My comments were roughly these: Am I the only one willing to come to the wholehearted defense of audio books? That surprises me, given the number of well-produced, unabridged audio books readily available. I have listened to audio books on and off all my adult life, but I really became a fan when I got an iPod a few years ago and discovered how to load audio cds from the library onto my iTunes library, then on to my iPod. I can keep 20 or more books in my purse! I still read the big majority of my books with my eyes, but there are plenty that I read with my ears. I disagree with those who say that listening to an audio book does not "count" as reading the book. An unabridged audio book is putting every single word of the book into your head, just like reading a paper book does - it is just that one way gets into your brain via your ears; the other through your eyes. But it is the same information getting to your brain - just like reading a book in Braille puts the book into your brain through your fingertips. The difference is sensory, not substantive. It is not like watching a play or a movie or listening to a radio program because an audio book is not an adaptation - it is the real book, read aloud. True, it is possible to miss parts of an audio book. But it is also possible to miss parts of a book read with your eyes. I can get distracted reading a "book book" just as easily as when I listen to a book. In some situations - on a plane, for example - listening to the book is more absorbing than trying to read a paper book. There are a couple of genres I think benefit from an audio format. First, memoirs read by the author are, in my opinion, superior to the paper format. You can hear exactly how the author intended the words to sound - you get inside the author's head. For example, I can always figure out who listened Frank McCourt read Angela's Ashes and who read it with their eyes. The first group, including me, thought the book was heartwarming and very funny. The second group thought it was heartbreaking and incredibly sad. The difference is in the cadence and inflection McCourt put into the words when he read them. Likewise, Ayaan Hirisi Ali reading her biography Infidel was mind blowing. I cannot imagine getting the same impact from the printed page. On a lighter note, I came close to abandoning David Sedaris until I listened to Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim and became a devoted fan. The second genre I prefer in audio is classic literature. I am listening to Crime and Punishment now. In the past few years, I have listened to, among others, Moll Flanders, Silas Marner, Hard Times, Madame Bovary, and Moby Dick. And, yes, even the passages on cetology and the meaning of "white" were entertaining when read out loud. As I have mentioned here before, I think that listening to these classics is more rewarding that reading them with my eyes. Instead of facing dense, page-long paragraphs of prose, some professional has parsed the phrasing and figured out every nuance of intonation. That, along with different voices for characters, makes some of these older books come alive. In that way, I agree with the idea that audio books are like a play - listening to them is satisfying in the same way that watching a Shakespeare play makes more sense than trying to read it on the page. So while I will continue to flip pages, you can often find me plugged into my iPod, listening to a book. And I definitely count every one of those audio books as I scratch them off my various book lists.

13 comments :

Lezlie said...

Bravo for your defense of audiobooks! I agree with you completely!! You beautifully put into words exactly what I think of them.

Lezlie

Shelley said...

Not only do I think audio books "count," but I feel they have enhanced my reading in the traditional way. I read slower and savor each word. It also took me a while to learn to listen to audio books, and I feel like different parts of my brain have developed in becoming a better listener. It's absolutely absurd to knock audiobooks. After all, it's the way stories were first shared with others.

charley said...

What a well-written, thoughtful post.

I agree that listening to a book - especially a memoir - that is read by the author is often superior to reading the printed word, because you experience the story as the author intends it.

bermudaonion said...

I'm fairly new to audio books, but I love them! They make a car trip so much more pleasant. I don't listen to them instead of reading books, I listen to them in addition to reading books.

Jen - devourer of books said...

Bravo, well said. I've been loving audiobooks lately. They help me squeeze reading into what used to be 'lost' time: when I'm driving an hour and 1/2 each day to and from and when I'm cleaning or cooking. Why not let myself absorb more books in that time?

Rebecca Reid said...

I of course agree with you!

Right now I'm listening to a nonfiction audiobook that is just not working for me. It's only six hours long but I haven't been driving very far the last two weeks so I keep feeling lost when I turn on the car, since I only get about 10 minutes at a time. I think I'm going to have to read it on paper. I'm also just not into it enough to listen while I'm cooking. Maybe I just need a better book!!

Rebecca Reid said...

...and I have Angela's Ashes in paper, but now I want to get the audiobook! Sounds like it's a big difference.

Rose City Reader said...

Thanks for all your nice comments. I know I got a little worked up, but to say listening to a book doesn't "count" -- that got my "compulsive 'list' reader" hackles up. I mean, if I don't get to count audio books as books read, it would take me forever to get through my lists!

Also, I agree with Shelley -- my listening skills have definitely improved as I listen to more audio books. Not my empathizing-type listening skills, as Hubby would be quick to point out, but my general ability to comprehend what I hear. I used to think that I could only learn through my eyes, but I find I can understand more of what I hear since I've learned to concentrate on the audio books while doing other things like driving, cooking, or cleaning. It's like any skill -- you get better with practice.

C.S. said...

Audio books have never worked for me. But, while I consider myself a bit of a "literary snob" and like the look and feel of a book in my hands as part of the overall reading experience, I certainly don't condemn those who prefer the audio form.

Rose City Reader said...

Hi C.S.! For all my enthusiasm, I definitely prefer a paper book to an audio book, for the same reasons you say, and because you can flip back to re-read or check something, mark favorite passages, etc.

Also, I can usually read with my eyes faster than someone can read a book out loud. I get frustrated listening to mysteries sometimes because I know I could flip through it much faster.

Not true for dense classics -- for these I give the nod to the audio format. The books themselves can be gorgeous and improve the whole experience -- I have a particular memory of a cold, damp San Francisco January spent reading The Three Musketeers. But they are slow reading, so the audio book moves faster. And the sad fact is that I get to them if they are on my iPod whereas I pass them by for something more immediately engaging when choosing a book from my TBR shelf.

C.S. said...

Your points make perfect sense and I might give one of the classics a try on audio just to see how it works. I guess part of my problem is that, as someone who writes for a living, I like to look at how the author has constructed the words as much as I like what it all says. Audio doesn't work quite as well for that.

John Mutford said...

I think it's up to the reader/listener to decide if it counts or not. I don't attend as well to audio as I do visual and so for me, it wouldn't count. In my case, the sensory determines the substantive. But, for those like yourself who are able to take it in that format and enjoy it, of course it counts.

Rose City Reader said...

John -- Thanks for visiting! And Psmith -- thanks for luring him over with by mentioning this post on his blog.

Your point John is exactly right -- only the reader can say which books "count" as having been read, in whatever medium. There are book books I read that I no longer count as having read because I remember NOTHING about them (I recently re-read Silas Marner, for instance, after finding a book report I wrote in High School but having no memory or anything about it.)

I have no problem with someone saying, "I can't get into an audio book, so I don't count that." But it chapped my hide when the crankypants on LibraryThing wanted to lay down a blanket "no audio books" rule.

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