The Power of Audiobooks

Not everybody loves them — and somehow among lit snobs (to which not counting myself would be hypocrisy) there seems to be that tenuous feeling that listen to an audiobook is not quite reading. It’s too easy and somehow we all live in this world in which something counts more, the more effort we put into it.

When I told a friend that I did indeed read Anna Karenina, they were very impressed by the sheer amount of finished pages, rather than anything else. I insisted that for me, I didn’t think it really was worth it and in the topic field, I far preferred Madame Bovary. But that is shorter so nobody believes me. I also read Moby Dick, which still remains to be one of the longest and most torturous reads of my life – quickly followed by The Scarlett Letter, which at least was short. And if a read has to be agonizing, it has better short and agonizing in my opinion.

So if we sometimes even frown on short books as easy, then audiobooks just can’t count. You just sit there and listen, it’s like watching a movie without, you know, watching.

And to a certain part, I agree. Listening to an audiobook is a different experience than reading a book. And if difficulty was a factor in whether or not the consumption of a book is valid, I suppose it would be less valid. I can be tired and groggy and sad and lie on my bed and listen to one. And it makes me happy.  I can listen to one while doing something else, like shooting aliens in a pc game, drawing, editing photographs, cooking, cleaning or other similar non-verbal but visual tasks (as in I can’t actually watch a movie or tv show at the same time). None of these work with books.

But we all live in a world in which the amount of time we have to spend on these wonderful things like reading is often severely limited. When I have spent my day looking at text, writing my own stuff, editing, writing emails, reading friends’ manuscripts, I find it really difficult to go to bed reading some more, staring at more text. But I love lying back and listening to the soothing voices of well-read audiobooks for half an hour or so.

A well-read audiobook adds a dimension to the text, it makes it richer, warmer, and yes, better. And unlike a movie, it doesn’t rob you of your own creativity and your imagination. Sometimes it does, but that usually means that the reader asserts himself too much and plays up voices and accents in a distracting way. In the German version of Harry Potter, for example, the reader takes it upon himself to give Snape a Russian accent. And I can’t listen to it because I want to strangle him so hard — what was he thinking?! It makes zero sense. (It’s also prejudiced and weird — oh the cruel, mean character is Russian, is he?)

But in general, audiobooks are wonderful. They are being a child again and curling up with someone reading to you. Plus, and here I veer off the childhood metaphor – I am somewhat convinced I have erogenous zones somewhere deep inside my ears and these beautiful voices carrying amazing prose just give me a really nice happy feeling like few other things do. I think prose is meant to be read out loud. We can’t always do that, but when we can I love taking advantage of it.

So that is my defence and praise of audiobooks.

Do you like them? Which are your favourite ones?

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