At first glance, audiobooks appear to be a boon for the lazy. After all, why bother reading a book if you can get it read to you?
No longer do people need to go to the trouble of scanning the page, interpreting the characters they see or weary their arm holding up a book. They can just pop in their earphones and press ‘play’.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, sales of audiobooks are booming, increasing by a whopping 43 per cent in 2018, while sales of print books dropped slightly. They are especially popular among urban-dwelling men aged between 25 and 44, with significant growth also in the 18-24 age group. Yes, I see what you’re thinking.
And Neilson Book research appears to confirm the theory that audiobooks are the easy option, revealing most readers accessed audiobooks because of their convenience.
So, are audiobooks anything more than an easy option? Do we love them because we are too lazy to read a book, or are there other benefits of accessing our stories in this way?
I have just started to listen to my first audiobook – The Nickel Boys – in order to ‘read’ while going for a walk. I was sick of scrolling for podcasts, and thought an audiobook would offer a more longform option that could engage me during many walks, rather than offering bite-sized episodes.
So far, I have found it to be far from the easy option. When I am listening to an audiobook, I have to concentrate quite closely to what is happening and if my mind wanders, I have to rewind the audio to catch what was said. While re-reading a sentence is easy, finding the place in the audio where my mind started to take a different path is far harder, requiring me to concentrate harder to ensure I don’t miss anything.
It is not just the story line that is hard to keep hold of when listening rather than reading; there is also the difficulty of grasping subtleties like a witty turn of phrase or a beautiful sentence. A higher level of concentration is necessary to stand apart from what the eyes are seeing while listening to an audiobook, and focus on what the ears are hearing.
Despite the concentration issues, I’m enjoying this new form of reading as another way to devour more words from my favourite authors. It motivates me to exercise in a way that upbeat music or simple guilt never did and I look forward to finding out what happened next, and it encourages me to put on my runners and get out of the house.
In addition to its convenience, the narrator brings a whole new element to listening to a book. I’m enjoying the inflections author Colson Whitehead and JD Jackson bring to The Nickel Boys, and I’d love to hear Stephen Fry’s famous readings of the Harry Potter books. The popularity of audiobooks has also led other heavyweights to get involved, with Thandie Newton reading Jane Eyre and Rosamund Pike narrating Pride and Prejudice. The narrator brings a whole new element to the words, making audiobooks quite a different beast to print ones.
The variety of popular genres suggests that those choosing audiobooks are not looking for a rest. Audible’s current list of the most popular audiobooks contains Stephen Fry’s Mythos, Michelle Obama’s Becoming Scott Pape’s The Barefoot Investor, Delia Owen’s Where the Crawdads Sing and Celeste Barber’s Challenge Accepted.
In New Zealand, the closure of bookshops and libraries due to the coronavirus led to a surge in the popularity of ebooks and audiobooks, with The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*&k the most commonly ordered, appearing on 300 library members’ wait lists.
Clearly, people are seeking a wide range of genres, from the autobiography and general fiction to self-improvement and fantasy, and many stories listened to as audiobooks are far from being lazy options. Sometimes listeners are looking for entertainment and relaxation, other times they are looking to learn about finance, mythology or leadership. Just like any reader.
Rather than choosing an audiobook, it would be far easier to pick up the tv remote and switch on something that requires little to know concentration – the latest reality blockbuster or a soap that is somehow both addictive and relaxing.
For me, audiobooks are an exciting way of reading more books at times when otherwise I wouldn’t have the chance. Despite the challenges of holding on to the train of what is happening in the story without being distracted by passing cyclists or irritable swans, I’ve got a feeling that this is the start of something that I’m going to continue (even if that means a lot of pausing and rewinding).
But while audiobooks might be convenient, they’ll never take the place of reading a print book, or even an ebook, when I can. I don’t think many other audiobook listeners will, either.
In a BBC article, Penguin Audio publisher Richard Lennon said that audiobooks were rarely competing with print:
“It’s people who are either fitting books and authors into their day in new ways, so people who might be existing readers but have found that during their commute or exercising or cooking dinner, there’s an opportunity to listen. Or it’s an alternative to TV for people who are conscious of their screen time,” Mr Lennon said.
In the same Neilson Book research as above, around 40 per cent of listeners chose audiobooks when they could not access print books. While for many that might mean when they’re cooking or travelling, for those with vision problems, audiobooks must be a godsend – no easy option but in fact the only option.
Of course, for some, audiobooks might be the lazy option during the times when they just want to lie back on the couch and listen to an easy read. It would not be hard to ‘skim’ an audiobook, and I don’t see anything wrong with that.
But to truly know what a work of literature is saying takes just as much effort – and sometimes even more – while listening to the words as reading them from a page. While when a book is made into a movie, the sight and sound of the words are right in front of the audience, audiobooks require an effort to conjure the image of what is happening in the mind, while listening to what is happening next.
I like to think that while I’m exercising my body when I go for walks, rather than taking an easy option, I am also strengthening and opening my mind by listening to audiobooks. But that might just be the excuse of a hopeless bookworm.
Do you listen to audiobooks? What do you think of them?