Audiobooks: a modern form of thumb-sucking?

In the Guardian, Mark Lawson bemoans the popularity of audiobooks.

Like radio, the talking story has proved to be an art-form adaptable to new technology.

Although an occasional user, I have always been suspicious of texts being read, except in cases where the consumer has no alternative.

“The major consumers of listenable literature divide between three groups: the blind and partially sighted; people whose eyes and hands are otherwise occupied – drivers, joggers, gardeners; and those who are too lazy to take in the information visually.”

Lawson’s willing to let the blind and joggers slide on listening to books. And he accepts that poetry and drama should be read aloud. But he pours scorn on other listeners.

For most works of literature in most circumstances, a fully sighted reader who is not in a car or on foot should be reading rather than hearing. Despite their blessed conquest of obstacles to reading, talking stories ultimately risk an infantilisation of literature: a vision of a Britain full of grown-ups having stories read to them; books that, exacerbating the babying, will often be the Harry Potter novels. Adults should read grown-up stories to themselves. The best reading – always – takes place without a sound to be heard.

Me, I’m not about to discourage people from imbibing my novels in whatever form they choose. Hell, if anybody came up with a technology that actually allowed people to imbibe my books, I’d bottle them and stock my novels in vending machines. Kill Chain Cola has a ring to it.

So no, I don’t object to audiobooks. What do you think?

IN THE COMMENTS: Patti feels a pedantic rant coming on. Yay!

24 responses to “Audiobooks: a modern form of thumb-sucking?

  1. I vote for Kill Chain Cola!

    I don’t object to audiobooks at all and am generally in favour of anything that gets books read (or heard).

  2. “Adults should read grown-up stories to themselves. The best reading – always – takes place without a sound to be heard.”

    Nonsense! Literature began with oral recitations in pre-literate culture. Our love of music, poetry and stories develops long before learning to read, as any parent knows.

    I do not find audio books encourage laziness. In my case, they encourage attention. With a book in my lap I can graze off into a daydream or meditation, then pick up again at any point. With a recorded book I need to keep focused or big patches can go by, unattended.

  3. I love the concept of having a story read to me. I’ve tried audio book CDs before but I always fall asleep or don’t pay attention, but I still like the idea behind it.
    Whoever would want to deprive someone of that is just a literature snob.

  4. I have nothing against audiobooks, but I’m in the ‘tried and failed’ group. I always get distracted or just forget that I’m supposed to be listening to it, unless I’m reading the physical book at the same time. It’s also fun to flick back through a book to reference current events back to what’s come before.

  5. It’s obviously great for those of us on the go, but it does adds a little unpredictability. Lord of the Flies, for example, was narrated by the man himself, William Golding. Thanks to the wheezing, I spent a lot of time worrying he’d have a heart attack. In general, though, I’m a big fan. And when an actor like Gary Sinise reads a classic like Of Mice and Men, something special can happen.

  6. I do both. I have a book on hand whenever I am going to a doctor appointment and usually can expect to wait and a second novel on CD for the drive to any destination. (Important point: I would NEVER get an audiobook which is an abrdigement, something I have tried to get through to librarians in every county library I visit.) I became hooked on audiobooks when I began frequent 300 mile trips to West Palm Beach as my father was dying. They really make an extremely boring drive much more pleasant. And some books do lend themselves to listening as much as reading.
    Maybe this is just coincidence but i feel like my waits in doctor offices are much shorter becaue receptionists think waiting for my turn is no slonger annoying so I am shown in more quickly. This also works at places I go to to get my hair cut. :>)

  7. “(Important point: I would NEVER get an audiobook which is an abrdigement, something I have tried to get through to librarians in every county library I visit.)”

    Quite right. Also avoid the over-dramatized ones. A book is not a play, but a good reader makes a big difference.

  8. Agreed, silverseason. Hearing the actors who have read my books for audio has been an eye-opener for me. It’s not only helped me appreciate how much skill and craft they have, but has helped me improve my own reading skills.

    AmandaBlogandKiss: Best. Blog name. Ever.

  9. I do both and although there is something very satisfying about book ownership, (I will never stop buying books) I have had some amazing stories read to me. It does take focus; and one must train themselves to listen. No one really knows how to stop and listen anymore. The Harry Potter books are wonderful stories to listen to, and I read the books also. I’ve also listened to many classics which gave me a new appreciation of them. (Maybe I should have someone read The Grapes of Wrath to me–perhaps I can work through my seizures.)

    So what if being read to reminds me of the many cherished times as a child my mom would call me over and let me snuggle on her lap, and she would read the latest story insert for children to me from her Woman’s Day magazine? Is that such a bad feeling to have?

    I would like to recommend that you go to Neil Gaiman’s Web site. There, on his mousecircus presence, he reads The Graveyard Book in it’s entirety, free, in 9 segments. This was my first Gaiman book and he just oozed English charm all over that thing. I loved it and have since read 2 more of his books and will continue to do so.

    I don’t believe there is one best way to take in information. It’s just about getting it in there.

  10. I feel a pedantic rant coming on. With my son still asleep, classes over and no hapless students trapped behind a barricaded door, you poor bloglodites are catching it.

    Well, reading silently to oneself is a pretty recent development (about 400 years). Reading was a social activity when literacy levels were lower, books less common, and the protestant practice of individual bible reading less entrenched. Reading aloud didn’t cease either just because people started reading silently–check a Jane Austen novel and see how often someone is reading to someone else, even though there are also references to characters reading on their own. Was it “infantilisation” when groups of people gathered to listen to someone read Chaucer? Or when Milton composed Paradise Lost in his head and recited it to his amanuensis?

    Now, how about the adults for whom print is a major obstacle? There are lots of folks with learning disabilities out there or for whom literacy (of the sort required to make it through a novel) is just out of reach. I know, Lawson probably doesn’t “believe” in learning disabilities–it’s just laziness.

    Oh, then there’s the professor in me who is always trying to get students to listen to the language they are reading. They are so programmed to skim text visually and extract facts that they don’t hear what is going on in it. It makes me crazy and I force them through all kinds of strange things (including singing “London Bridge” to the tune of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”) in order to get them to tune into meter, alliteration, assonance, consonance and just plain yummy words that are only so when you say them.

    I use audiobooks sometimes and would put another mark in the “no abridgements” column. We listen to them in the car and I never hear “are we there yet?” or “how many more minutes” (oh, about 300 or so. . .) any more. We’ve been known to sit in my mother’s driveway just to get to the end of a chapter. And Rich, like you I found them a godsend while my dad was dying and I was hauling a 10 year old along for monthly drives of the same distance you travelled. My dad also listened to books when he got to the point when he didn’t have the energy or concentration to read. With books on cds he could skip back through the tracks until he found where he left off if he dozed off.

    My first choice is print because I’m a control freak who prefers the voice in my head, but that’s not true of everyone. One of the readers I look for when it is an audiobook occasion is Barbara Rosenblatt–she can do characters that are distinct, but wonderfully subtle.

    End of raving. And, Mark Lawson, I suck my thumb at you.

  11. Come to think of it, Dana Jean, it might have been the audiobook version of Grapes of Wrath I was defending. Maybe I slept through the seizure-inducing parts 🙂

    Another nice feature of audiobooks is that it frees up your hands for actual thumb-sucking when the plot gets a little intense.

  12. Good heavens, what a nitwit. I’m surprised he exonerates the blind and visually impaired, instead of insisting they all stick to Braille.

  13. Ahh… how wonderful, on a rainy afternoon, to have a nice toasty rant to curl up in front of. Thanks, Patti.

    And, because it’s Good Friday, I’ll note that the Gospel according to St. John starts: “In the beginning was the Word” — and that Word began long, long before the invention of writing.

  14. “Although an occasional user, I have always been suspicious of texts being read, except in cases where the consumer has no alternative.”

    One suspects that Mr. Lawson is rather incapable of recognizing the irony in his own statement.

  15. I always go for the printed word when at home, but I’m never without an audiobook on my phone, with a backup supply of CDs in the car.

    Although come to think of it, that’s not entirely correct. I have on more than one occasion listened to an audiobook in bed (with headphones) when my wife decides it’s lights out.

    And Patti – how right you are regarding the kids – Roald Dahl makes a car journey fly by for them.

  16. I am not against audiobooks at all though I never listen to any myself 🙂 It is just that it has always been easier for me to learn and understand something when I read it, and today I have problems with concentration and wouldn´t be able to remember anything from one chapter to the other if I could only hear it. One could say I am the one who is handicapped, however, so I am certainly not going to say that ´my way´ is the best, or the only way, to enjoy a novel.

  17. There’s something to be said for a story well read…I still remember story time, my mommy reading to me as a child — and when I went to the library as a kid. A well read story jumps off the page and creates visuals — and make ya wanna read more.

    I hear audio books on my iPod and it’s like those days — isn’t really all about a good story?

    Henry Cruz

  18. If it weren’t for audiobooks, I’d never make it through my commutes to and from work. And listening to “Bag of Bones”, read by Stephen King himself, made it my favorite of his works.
    I remember that Hamlet and MacBeth came alive to me for the first time in the high school Lit class where the teacher played audio versions–I could finally understand them!
    But some books are too special to do anything but read them in print–
    the rest of King’s works (ironically), and I’ve never listened to Meg’s books on CD.

  19. I downloaded a book onto my iPod only because it wasn’t available in any other format, I listened to it whilst driving around on the permanent road construction which currently passes for a highway in Johannesburg, I use the term ‘driving’ very loosely here. I found my attention wondering as my mind grappled with other thoughts and I was slightly embarrassed when the narrator had to decribe the love making.

  20. I listen to audio books in the car to and from work. I HATE the abridged ones though, and avoid them as much as I can.
    Another element comes in though when you are listening to the book through the reader’s voice, and one or two have turned me off totally. On the other hand sometimes you end up getting through a book that might otherwise have been a struggle.
    When it comes to reviewing (and I always review all the books I read whether with the eyes or with the ears) audio books raise another problem. You can’t turn back the pages easily to check something. You may not even get character names correct because the narrator doesn’t spell them for you, and minot details disappear into memory ether. If the narrator has won you over, then you may give the book a higher rating than if you had actually read it in a print version.
    Do you get better royalties from an audio book Meg? They certainly cost more.

  21. I have nothing but great things to say about audio books. I’ve been an avid listener for about 30 years! Well before CD’s we carried around large boxes of cassettes. Whether it’s my daily work commute, long car trips, walking or gardening, I can take my mind off the redundant and listen to a good book. Of course I read the ‘regular’ way too, but sometimes find I remember certain stories much better if I’ve listened to them.
    My husband has never been a reader, but in the past few years that he’s been commuting, I keep him stocked with books and now we actually have something in common to talk about.
    My son has ADHD and has always had trouble getting through a book on his own, until I gave him audio. Now when he listens to one, he can compose a book report!
    The readers make all the difference and I have enjoyed the readers for Meg’s books.
    Of course minds wander, but rewind works as well as turning back the pages.

  22. Love audiobooks in my commutes to and from work. Keeps all the bad news on the radio at bay.

    BTW: Gimme a double shot of that Crosscut whiskey…

  23. I always drink my whiskey neat. I would no more add water to whiskey than I would a good merlot.

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