A little over 3 years ago I listened to my very first audiobook. It was Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, and at the time, I endured a boring, cornfield-laden commute that had me driving some 2 hours a day. I won’t say that the experience was revolutionary (though the novel was certainly great) but it set me on a path that enhanced my reading life and drive time forever.
Soon after that first listen, I joined Audible.com and finally learned how bluetooth actually works. I began listening to audiobooks on the regular and never looked back. I have over 70 audiobooks in my library now and 1/3 of the book I’ve read this year are audiobooks.
According to this Wall Street Journal article by Jennifer Maloney, I’m not alone. Audiobooks are huge, enabled in part by our need to be constantly engaged, smartphones, bluetooth, and (especially if you live in the Seattle area) awful commutes.
I began my audiobook journey by listening to The Great Courses. I wanted to learn something. The ambitious first course I chose was about stock market investing. Of course, I felt like a genius after listening to it and my Etrade account suffered as a result.
I moved on to classics, listening to Shirley Jackson, Orwell, Bradbury, and I’m happy to say that I introduced my little sister to Animal Farm and we had a very interesting discussion about pigs and people and dictatorships and totalitarianism.
Something I enjoy about audiobooks is that while the act of reading is often a solitary experience, audiobooks can be a community activity. It’s fun to listen along with others. The Birds and Other Stories by Daphne DuMaurier was a memorable listen as my sister and I drove along the Mississippi river to go camping (The Apple Tree is highly recommended). Communal listening creates memories, too. An eternal inside joke was born by listening to the horrible, occasionally unintelligible narration in H.P. Lovecraft’s Short Tales of Terror (but then maybe my puny human ears will never comprehend the untold horrors of an eldritch god’s incantation).
Speaking of narration. It never occurred to me until I became a regular audiobook listener how crucial the narrator can be to quality of the experience. At best, the narrator should be invisible. But part of the recent marketing strategy for audiobooks, as pointed out in the above mentioned WSJ article, is advertising books read by celebrities. Actors are trained performers, so it’s not a bad idea in theory. It all boils down to the skill of the narrator, regardless of whether they’re a celebrity or not. One of my absolute favorite performances is Mia Farrow reading Rosemary’s Baby (that “hail satan!” at the end is unforgettable). While on the flip side, I spent 30 hours driving across the country listening to Kate Mulgrew (who is fantastic as “Red” on Orange is the New Black) scream her way through Joe Hill’s Nos4a2. Let’s just say it wasn’t the mountain passes making my ears bleed.
One tiny suggestion I might make: if you are a narrator attempting the voice of the opposite gender, just…read it normal. Please.
Memoirs, in particular, benefit from the author reading it. Can you imagine anyone reading Yes Please but Amy Poehler? Or anyone who is not Carrie Brownstein reading Hunger Makes me a Modern Girl? Self-help books, such as Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott and The Productivity Project by Chris Bailey are often well-read, as their authors are typically accomplished public speakers.
One argument I might have engaged in 3 years ago is whether listening to audiobooks counts as “reading.” That question doesn’t even make sense to me anymore. If someone is engaging with art, and it draws reaction and reflection, who cares?
Sure, there are some drawbacks to audiobooks. You can’t grab a pen to highlight your favorite quotes. Your attention is sometimes distracted by the hot babe or puppy walking down the street as you’re driving. You’re multitasking by definition. It’s a symptom of our perpetually distracted society and proof positive that the world is swirling down the toilet. Audiobooks are the devil! Argh!
Audiobooks are great. Sometimes I do chores just to have an excuse to listen to them. I’m glad I have something to focus on other than making up songs about my dog as I’m folding laundry (the greatest YouTube channel that never was).