Multitasking has lost its appeal since I became a mother. As a child, it had meant the ability to hold an icecream and ride my bike at the same time; as an adult it is more likely to mean I can prepare the next day’s lunchboxes for my children, stir the bolognaise while booking a dentist appointment.
But then I discovered audiobooks and my appreciation for multitasking returned. Suddenly, I could drive and read, exercise and read, and cook and read. Perhaps, one day in the distant future when I finally get around to vacuuming the house, I’ll probably vacuum and read, too.
No longer was my reading time confined to post-10pm, when my head hit the pillow at the end of the day. Now I could read anywhere, and while doing almost anything. It was a bibliophile’s dream come true. Even mundane household jobs became more enjoyable (and wearing a pair of headphones sends a strong message to the rest of the household). Audiobooks fill times of boredom or mindless activity with the entertaining, moving, thought-provoking words of writers, world leaders or comedians.
However, the convenience is just part of the story, because if it is done well, the narration can add a whole new dimension to the story.
The first book I listened to was the novel that went on to win The Pulitzer Prize for fiction – Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys. I loved the way the narrator and the author told the story together, bringing to life the harrowing experiences of the characters. Their voices held my attention, and made me feel like I was listening to men tell the stories of their childhoods in American boys’ homes.
Next, it was Helen Garner musing over her everyday experiences, or offering her thoughts on high profile news stories, in Everywhere I Look. It added an intimacy to the story when it was told in the voice of the author, and I was hooked.
The third audiobook I listened to was Sarah Krasnostein’s fabulous non-fiction novel, The Trauma Cleaner. I found myself making excuses to go for walks alone so I could listen to more of the story of Sandra, a transsexual woman whose life experiences are as extraordinary as the compassion she shows for the traumatised people she encounters in her business cleaning houses where a death, or extreme hoarding, has occurred.
Most recently, I finished The Erratics by Vicki Laveau Hardie, which was a very different, but equally addictive listen. The story recounts Vicki’s experience of saving her father from her cruel and manipulative mother. Narrated by the author, it is a story of family pain, and warmth.
Audiobooks are the perfect solution for any bookworm who is only reluctantly active – there is nothing as motivating as another chapter of a compulsive read. I started listening to audiobooks during isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and so I walked, and walked, and walked. All I wanted to do was listen to more of my current audiobook.
I’m not the only one to have experienced the benefits of audiobooks – research carried out in 2019 revealed that one in five Americans listened to audiobooks. This doesn’t mean that people are reading fewer books in print – that number has remained stable – but that audiobooks are a net gain when it comes to reading. It might be that people who don’t usually read are picking up audiobooks, or that existing readers are listening to audiobooks on top of their regular reading.
In Australia, libraries have reported an upsurge in audiobook and ebook loans in the past year, especially since the closure of libraries during the COVID-19 pandemic. The most commonly borrowed audiobooks were Becoming by Michelle Obama, The Barefoot Investor by Scott Pape and The Subtle Art of Not Giving a **** by Mark Manson. The most popular fiction audiobooks were Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty, The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling.
Publishers Weekly revealed that people were most likely to listen to audiobooks in the car, with mystery, thriller and suspense the most popular genres, followed by history, biography and memoir.
While I adore this form of reading, it isn’t without its setbacks. It seems to be impossible to mark a passage that I want to return to, and when my mind wanders, as it tends to do when I walk, I have to awkwardly rewind to the section to which I last remember listening. This can be frustrating, and so I find myself straining to concentrate.
Some books don’t lend themselves to this format. I tried to listen to Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians and found it was just too difficult to follow. Similarly, I have started listening to Tara June Winch’s The Yield, and I’m having trouble understanding the story. I feel it would be easier to read the book than to listen to it.
Listening to an audiobook can also be a bit of a trap that means you get used to being entertained all the time, never leaving you alone with your thoughts. I find that while I used to like strolling through the gardens near my house and listening to the chattering of other people, the chirping of the birds and the whispering of the leaves blowing in the wind, now I only ever have my earphones in, listening to my latest audiobook.
Sometimes I wonder whether it is such a good thing to have entertainment at our fingertips at all times, meaning there is never a time to be on our own with our thoughts, or with silence. Clearly, this is not just a problem of audiobooks, but of the endless apps on our phones that mean that we have constant access to news, games, social media, and any other sinkhole we might want to lose ourselves any time we have a moment.
There is also the risk of looking like a douchebag if you forget to remove your AirPods when you order a coffee after your walk.
But, on the whole, audiobooks have been a revelation for me, and their disadvantages definitely don’t outweigh their benefits. In the past month since I listened to my first one, they’ve meant I’ve been reading more and walking more.
Have you given them a try? What did you think?
You can access audiobooks for free at your local library (just login and navigate to the audiobook section of your library’s website. My library uses the Bolinda service) or sign up free month-long trial at Audible.