The Audiobook

I love audiobooks. During a period between my undergraduate finals and throughout my postgrad days, I developed carpal tunnel syndrome. I estimated that I typed between 20,000-25,000 words a day, and that’s just on notes, not to include googling, IM conversations, emails and button bashing playing a game or such. I was forced to think of alternatives to my regular methods of note-taking and I was assisted by the university to think about alternative ways of learning to sitting with a book between my knees and moving my neck between the screen and the two pages beneath me.

During this period of time I developed a lot of new rituals, all of which were with the intention to increase my efficiency while doing physically less. It was simply not an option at the time to force myself to take less notes. This was the start of a story that got me into book chairs, and perhaps more pertinently, audiobooks.

At the time I only read for learning and reading in the exegetical way of interpreting philosophy texts and journal articles is a very specific form of learning. I had very little time for any other kind of reading, and that includes the fun stuff. Audiobooks for me represented a departure and radical alternative to taking in information through books. I’ve spent years reading as a way of memorising every detail and nuance of a piece, to some extent I still do this and it’s a habit that has its benefits and curses.

The audiobook is an aural experience. Reading can be an aural experience, it is often good for one’s comprehension to read aloud what one is reading, this was a habit that James Mill taught his genius son. Reading is also a tactile experience, feeling paper, its texture, the thickness or smoothness of a page. Reading can also be an olfactory experience, an old book has a distinct smell, a wet book as well. A new book has a satisfying chemical odour to it. I can find these things distracting for reading ordinary things. I find it more difficult to turn pages than most people for example, partly due to RSI and mostly due to dyspraxia. Associating multiple sensations can help me memorise things, but they can also be distracting. My favourite association is when I play my old piano repetoire and I feel like I am psychically re-living when I was learning these pieces in the early 2000s as a teenaged younger me. Dry and dusty books also remind me of Kant, perhaps because the B1xxx section of the libraries around the world don’t tend to be visited very much.

Audiobooks have become very much in vogue in recent years. Often when I tell people that I enjoy audiobooks, you can tell on the basis of their age the kind of cultural connotations it has. Some people think its an easy option for reading as reading is often hard work, others think that its an intellectually lightweight option, normally because audiobooks have been for simple or accessible audiences. A few others have bought into the recent marketability of a certain audiobook provider that is very good right now and sponsors many of my favourite podcasts.

Audiobooks have become a market in a similar way to the ebook. Many major publishing houses and publications appeal and open themselves to the audiobook market. There are unique reasons for the appeal of the audiobook. Some audiobooks have ‘secret’ content specifically for audiobook format compared to say, printed format. Some newer audiobooks are read by the author, and what an interesting experience it can be to physically hear the author as if they are thinking those thoughts. Christopher Hitchens’ biography is a notable case in point, I read Hitchen’s biography around the time he died and I recall the haunting nature and significance of not only reading an author who is no longer living, but listening to his voice. Hitchen’s autobiography also includes a post-book interview in audio format where he describes his changing views on the audiobook as a medium.

Accesibility is a very important aspect of audio reading for me. I find it intellectually difficult to read anything, including children’s literature or fiction, because my mind is always working several different angles that would be apt for reading Adorno, but not Doctor Seuss. Reading an audiobook allows one to choose their degree of commitment to a text. I can read an audiobook while I’m working on something, while I’m at the gym. I can by contrast, spend full attention to an audio text as well. One of my most intimate audiobook experiences was one day when I was down with the flu, and I read the whole of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar while laying in bed, the experience was like living the life of Esher Greenwood and that book will always have a special place from my experience of listening to it.

Accessibility has many manifestations. Audiobooks I presume were initially made for the visually impaired. When I absorb an audiobook, I have found that my comprehension level is distinctly different to the tactile experience of reading a book, or even the visual experience of an ebook. Audiobooks (and for the same reason, podcasts) have allowed me to enjoy literature again and I have discovered the comedic monograph as well. George Carlin’s series of essays ‘Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?’ is a personal and hilarious collection of essays which is highlighted by the medium of audio. The sonic experience of a book has its aesthetic merits.

As with many things, I think the audiobook brings us closer to Homer. What I mean by this is we so often emphasise texts as the archetype of knowledge or communication. Namely through books or articles and word-representation. It is anachronistic to think of a great tale as the Iliad as a book, for its origins were as an oral poem. There is something powerful about the oral story and the diversity of ways a message can be communicated. The pre-eminence of the text can be a distraction, when what matters is the message it has. Audiobooks can be liberating in that way and also allow for a wider range of experiences in ‘reading’. I’m really glad that audiobooks are a bit more in vogue.

Michael

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