Although ‘talking books’ have been around in some form or another since the days of the phonograph they only became easily accessible with the invention of portable listening devices such as the Walkman. And then the internet happened…
I have many read articles that lament the rise of audiobooks as an indication of the waning attention span of the masses, and how people ‘just don’t read anymore’ but I’m not interested in harping on about the destructive nature of technology – Black Mirror has that covered. I am more interested in the usefulness, artistry and storytelling power of audiobooks.
1. This is how it all began
I don’t remember my mom ever reading me books – although I’m sure she did – but I do remember having a monthly subscription of a physical book and an accompanying cassette tape where the stories were lovingly narrated. I would sit with my cassette player and follow along in the book, reliving the story over and over and over, long before I could read. I guess this was my introduction to audiobooks, and the reason why I have such an affinity for them.
But it’s not really about the technology, there’s a more instinctive human reason why I loved (and do love) having stories told to me.
When my kids were little, I developed a night-time ritual where I would tuck my kids into bed, switch off the light and then sit in the doorway to read by the light of the passage. I would read from whatever book we were devouring at the time (Danny Champion of the World and The City of Ember are big highlights for my son). I absolutely loved reading to them, and when I couldn’t, I would play a CD of stories. Why? Because humans love stories and we start with having them told to us.
2. We’re busy people who still need stories
I don’t know about you, but as someone starting her dream career as an illustrator a little late in life with two busy teenagers in tow, I don’t have as much free time as I used to. On a Sunday or on holiday, you’ll find me attached to my books, but during a normal work week I feel like I get out of bed, work and get back into bed in an endless loop. I am lucky enough to love the work I do, but I found that I was sorely missing stories, especially while I spent hours doing line work and colouring my illustrations, leaving my mind somewhat unoccupied. I tried watching a series while I worked as some of my friends do, but I found it too distracting – I kept wanting to look up and appreciate the visuals of the story. Then someone recommended audiobooks and I tried one – it was the best thing I’ve ever done, and I am utterly addicted because I am fed stories while I work!
Whatever your opinion on audiobooks, the practical advantages of having your hands free while you ‘read’ are undeniable.
3. Reading is not a pleasure for everyone
My son and I are avid readers. I would go as far as to say that my son has probably read more books than me and my husband combined in his fifteen years. He would pick a paper book over an audiobook any day. For my physically active daughter though, sitting still and reading a bunch of words she’s struggling with is torture. So, after handing her every genre, style and size of book, I relented and gave her Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone read by Stephen Fry. She devoured all seven audiobooks in a couple of months. It was a turning point for her because she began to understand what it was like to be caught up in a story you couldn’t see – something she couldn’t do while she was struggling over words. She says she’s far less daunted to pick up a book and read it now, knowing that the hard work is worth the effort.
Aside from the added benefit of turning her to physical books when the audiobooks ran out, I also noticed that her vocabulary had increased, and she showed a deeper understanding of the story than she had with books she had tried to read.
Though this is a personal experience for me and my family, I imagine that this is not a singular incident. For people who are learning a new language, people who have a learning disability or fading eyesight, an audiobook is a more practical means of consuming the ‘written word’.
4. Audiobooks are often good art
Let’s be honest, not all audiobooks are great, but I can honestly say that 80% of the audiobooks I’ve listen to have been captivating and beautifully produced. To test this, I recently listened to a couple of books I had read first and loved. I wanted to see if the audio experience would be as moving as it had been on paper. Perhaps it was the good choice of narrator, but on all three occasions I was transported in an even more intimate way than I had been when I read the book – and this is with a knowledge of how it all ends.
Perhaps intimacy is the key here – you can hear every inflection of heartache and fear in the character’s voice and somehow, the story takes on a slightly more human aspect. The voice actors I have heard are serious about their craft and as a writer, I so appreciate how they have taken someone else’s words and breathed life into them to create a beautiful version of an original.
5. An added dimension of diversity
One thing I have loved about audiobooks is listening to a character of a different nationality speak in their own accent. I have always loved listening to accents, but I especially appreciate it when a voice actor gets this right and adds that dimension of reality to a character who would have sounded too much like me in my own head.
It’s one thing reading a book set in Nigeria but when the narrator sounds Nigerian, you are given a little taste of what Nigeria sounds like. I feel like this is an essential component for helping readers feel represented because while a book can’t spend every page reminding you how different a character looks, you can hear how different they are through the entire audiobook.
6. The individual/communal experience
Going back to that book/tape subscription I had as a child, I remember sitting on my bed with my brothers and listening together. We would fight over who got to turn the pages and whose favourite we would listen to first, but when the story began, we’d stop our arguing and listen raptly. It was just a little bit magical – a shared experience we still talk about.
Yes, you experience this each time you consume a story by watching a TV series or film with other people, but here’s the thing about audiobooks that is different to a film: we are still imagining the words in our own, unique way. We are sharing the story collectively, but we still have a unique experience.
Personally, I still love being curled up on my bed with a paper book in my hands. I love the smell of the pages, the illustrations, the feel of the paper under my fingers. I love reading. It’s magical. But I won’t deny the power of having someone read to you either. Whether it’s a full cast with ambient sound that plays out in a more cinematic way, or the gentle narration of a single person, there is beautiful intimacy of narration that I will always appreciate. If I had the opportunity, I would absolutely have my own books made into audiobooks.
I don’t think this conversation about audiobooks every needs to be about which one is better, but rather, an acknowledgement of each form’s beauty.
Cristy Zinn is the author of two fantasy novels, The Dreamer’s Tears and Of Magic and Memory and has published various short stories, including stories in both AfroSF and AfroSFv3. She is enthralled by stories involving the fantastic – technological and magical. She works as a graphic designer and illustrator. Cristy lives in Durban with her husband and two teenagers who graciously endure her obsession with stories.