It started almost two years ago as simple math: New full-time job plus lengthy commute equals too little time for reading, my favorite thing. Thus I began a relationship with audiobooks that grew from a matter of necessity to a near-obsession. Before, I never gave them a thought except on road trips, when music, marking off small increments of time, can be maddening. Now I get nervous if I have fewer than two of them in my car.
I don’t always take easily to new technology. I didn’t get a cellphone until my housemates refused to keep paying for a land line, and I didn’t start tweeting until the late date of December 2010. Audiobooks suit our multitasking society, but if I’m not driving, I still want a book in my hands, filling my focus. I haven’t budged on the e-reader, and I don’t think I ever will.
This is not an ethical position. E-books aren’t harbingers of literary doom. I just have some practical issues with them (my more obscure tastes, like small-press poetry, often can’t be found on Kindle) and some aesthetic ones. Looking at screens reminds me of work or passive entertainment, and to me, books are neither. I don’t want my reading, like my music listening, to be cheapened by a convenient, homogenizing interface.
I started with audiobooks I’d already read in print, as if to not waste a first encounter on a lower form. I also started with genre fiction, which is well suited to audiobooks (and I confess that I view some of it as subordinate to literature, which lives on the pageor so I felt at the time). I quickly burned through every Stephen King and Elmore Leonard CD in the Chapel Hill Public Library.
Gone Girl was the turning point when audiobooks began to shed their guilty pleasure status. Good voice actors are crucial, and Gillian Flynn’s thriller has two great ones reading Nick and Amy’s alternating chapters. When I watched the horridly miscast movie, I hated it, because those voice actors were Nick and Amy to me. And when I looked at the book, I found Flynn’s prose less scintillating than when read aloud. In the audiobook, Gone Girl finds its ideal form, and I bought Flynn’s box set of physical books because of it.
The best audiobooks transcend mere recitations to become dramatic productions, somewhere between novels and plays. Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One and Armada are enhanced when voiced by geek icon Wil Wheaton (Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation), especially when Wheaton himself comes up in the text. A nonfiction favorite, David Grann’s The Lost City of Z, feels even more suspenseful when read aloud. And I couldn’t get into The Pale King by David Foster Wallace, my onetime idol, until the audiobook brought its incantatory rhythms to life.
Of course, not all great writers benefit from the form. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Henry James work beautifully, with their relentlessly forward-moving sentences, but Virginia Woolf fares less well; it’s hard to keep track of her characters’ mazy thoughts and her strange way of moving time. And trying to take in Stieg Larsson without being able to skim just confirms that I abominate Stieg Larsson.
Is something lost, though? I’ve come to not think so. I still see the words in my mind’s eye, admiringly turning over sentence structures as I would in print, listening to discs several times until I feel the words are lodged inside me. When I love an audiobook, I will then buy the book (Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, for example) for future scrutiny.
I’m aware that I love paper books because I grew up with them, not because of their inherent virtue. I’m part of the final generation that treasures how books feel and smell, their unique typographies and designs and their eloquent weathering. I think they will pass away without much harm to the culture, but I’m not ready to give them up.
Audiobooks will never replace reading for me, but they have become a unique, enriching annex of it. They remind me that print is also a relatively new technology, compared to the stories it contains, and that scolds initially warned that books would wreck people’s eyesight and memory.
The audiobook actually harks back to something ancient: the oral storytelling tradition. The combination of being read to and “reading” the text in your mind is the best of both worlds: entertainment and edification, ease and effort, communion and solitude. It’s an amplification of the “NPR effect,” the simple pleasure and comfort of hearing human voices when you are alone.
LOCAL AUTHORS ON AUDIOBOOKS
“I mostly read paper books, which should come as no surprise, since my novels are very much about the world of physical books … Paper and ink form an information storage technology that is proven to last for hundreds of years with no degradation and no dependence on power supply, stable corporations or governments. We can’t say that about digital platforms.” Charlie Lovett, author of The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge
“Audio may not be the best format for long books. Of course, as soon as I say that, I remember a cross-country drive when my husband and I totally lost ourselves in John McPhee’s long book about Alaska, Coming Into the Country. We can tell you pretty much anything you need to know about moose.” Kim Church, author of Byrd
“I think you strip away one additional layer of imagination with an audiobook … It’s not a real book if you can’t hold it in your hands, lick your finger and turn the page.” Eryk Pruitt, author of Hashtag
“If you write a lot of books, it’s easy for thoughts to flow directly onto the page without ever being heard internally. Audiobooks have helped me reconnect the written word with the spoken word … Audiobooks helped me lose weight and keep it off. I started hiking the trails along the Eno to have a few extra hours to listen to Jane Austen or Thomas Hardy or H.G. Wells. Whenever I’m coming up the hill toward the Eno quarry, I think, “Are we not men?” since that’s where I first listened to that section of The Island of Dr. Moreau.” James Maxey, author of Bitterwood
“I didn’t read The Girl in the Road myselfit would have been inappropriate, as one character is from India and the other from Mauritania-but I helped to cast the actors who did … I got an evil glee listening to how they read bits like “underfuckingwater” and “dear bitch, I am fifty percent.” That’s the playwright’s lurid pleasuremaking people say the dirty words you wrote.” Monica Byrne, author of The Girl in the Road
“Professional actors have studied how to have the best possible voices they can. An amateur reader (or the author) is almost unendurable for any length of time. I’d rather have the computer read to me than that.” Tony Daniel, senior editor at Baen Books and author of Guardian of Night
“The more ways to read, the better. Look at how many different ways we have to listen to music; why shouldn’t reading enjoy the same variations? I wish there were pay-per-listening options where you could select your favorite celebrity to read a classic because I’d love to hear Chris Rock read Moby-Dick.” Sean Jackson, author of Haw
“Listening to anything is a vastly more intimate experience than reading, and people will usually have a different experience when reading with their ears as opposed to their eyes. Audio forces you to listen to a scene instead of glossing over, so you might get a better sense of the content.” Mur Lafferty, author of Ghost Train to New Orleans
“[Making an audiobook] is something that I would have found very appealing many years ago, but unfortunately I have lost enough of my hearing that I now have a speech impediment, which makes it difficult for me to read aloud … I think there is room for all of the formats. Audiobooks give the visually impaired a chance to enjoy a wider range of material. Likewise, e-books give people with visual impairments a way to change the text to a more legible format. Books are about communication, and the more people we can reach, the broader our world.” Teresa Frohock, author of the “Los Nefilim” series
“I’m almost entirely “reading” using audiobooks … Books written in dialect or with experimental prose benefit immensely: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, with its lack of dialogue tags; Sandra Newman’s The Country of Ice Cream Star, with its purposefully decayed language; or Manly Wade Wellman’s The Old Gods Waken, with its colorful Appalachian dialect. Nonlinear books and very long ones with huge casts don’t work as well. I would have said that books with special formatting, such as Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, could not work as audiobooks, but now I’ve heard a sample of Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren and I’m completely intrigued. Samuel Montgomery-Blinn, publisher of Bull Spec
This article appeared in print with the headline “Paper rout”