Monday, February 1, 2010

Listened to any good books recently?

“I read the newspaper, had lunch, played golf, tried to catch up on some reading with one of those Dickens videos.”
- Julian Barnes, A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters

An audiobook is a recording of an oral reading of a book. It is usually abridged, although titles are recorded in their full-length form for audiobook aficionados who call themselves ‘tapeworms’ as opposed to ‘bookworms’. In America and England, the audiobook market is on the upswing. The Audio Publishers Association was created in 1986 to gather statistics pertaining to this industry. It informs us that as of December 2004, the industry was worth $800 million.

The habit of “listening” to books is yet to gain traction in India. However, many South Asian writers, including Salman Rushdie, Jhumpa Lahiri, and V.S. Naipaul, have audio renditions of their books out in the market. Many audiobooks feature celebrities as narrators in order to aggrandize the product.

Audiobook technology has advanced very rapidly. Tapes are still used, but CDs, MP3s, and the iPod are waiting to take over completely. Many countries have audiobook libraries. The APA states that people above 45 years of age constitute the key market, but clearly, other cohorts are moving into the picture.

At this juncture, we need to pose an audacious question, but one that needs to be asked, given the fact that the reading habit could be affected by this ineluctable trend. Why would anyone want to listen to books? Aren’t books meant to be read? Fans of the audiobook argue that one of the best uses of an audiobook is the ability to listen to it when we are commuting, washing the dishes, or walking in the park. People do not have time to read books otherwise and in this way, they seem to complete more books in a shorter span of time.

It is important to remember that the number of books consumed in a week is unimportant when compared to the quality of the experience that a book affords us, when we are free to mull over passages that need to be returned to and reread. Reading is more complex, personal, and enjoyable than just appreciating the element of storytelling inherent in the writing. It is an experience that needs to be sought and cherished. Roundabout ways, hardly measuring up to the original, cannot be sought in order cram books into tightly-packed days.

Added to this, many books have pictures, symbols, or puzzles that the reader can pause to think over, or turn back to the earlier parts of the book for clues. Details can enrich writing, and audiobooks do not do justice to our ability to savour certain authors’ assiduous research and craft.

On reading a book, we have so many visceral impressions about a particular character, the narrative, or the very tone and 'voice' of the writing, as it were. These elements constitute the written work’s (not the writer’s) personality, and in an audiobook, these elements simply cannot come through.

Publishers of audiobooks have declared that listening to audiobooks has improved general literacy, but written composition and spelling are aspects that are sadly overlooked, not to mention the fact that writing incites a natural flair for writing in many students.

There is no doubt that for the visually impaired, an audiobook is extremely useful, and for this purpose, their production should be encouraged. However, they are not to be favoured over books.

On the other hand, the audiobook can be mined for different other benefits, the foremost being the idea of “written for audio” books or dramatizations. Sixty-two years ago, George Orwell wrote about the need to use the radio to popularize poetry. Today, audio dramatizations (also available in audiobook format) use multiple performers, little or no narration, music, and sound effects. The BBC also has a long history of radio dramas and its 13-hour adaptation of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ features a formidable cast, a beautiful score, and well-produced sound effects.

As children, our parents would have undoubtedly read books to us. This is often seen as a glorious way to share a book together, but nothing can come close to living vicariously, to the feeling of being in control of one’s own book and to having it tailor-made to suit one’s fancy. Individual impressions are like palimpsests and they are individual treasures. Let’s face it: “listening” to ‘The Hobbit’ when camping out in the woods doesn’t quite hack it.

First published in Deccan Herald, April 29th, 2007.


  1. What about the sensory experience? The feel of holding a book whose pages are yellowed, curled up on a window sill, is a complete sensory experience. The sensory experience also helps in a way establish a connection with those hands who have touched and smoothened the pages before. That evocative experience is lost in an audio book.
    But this is also a debate about the immigrants versus natives. Having been used to holding a book, an audio book, or even Kindle seems impersonal. But for someone who has grown up using audio books, there is no old experience to sully the new one.
    My 2-paise worth.

  2. You are spot-on about the sensory experience, of reading and holding a book.

    Also, when someone reads out a book in the form of an audiobook, their personality (which includes everything from who they are all about and the tone of their voice to what part they choose to emphasize, even their attitude - conscious or otherwise- to certain characters, etc.) kind of engrafts or imprints itself on the book, on the text, as it were. But if you read it yourself, in the form of a book that is, you make it your own, and the mind, of course, is the subtlest and the most powerful channel. That is, I think, what makes books win over audiobooks, at least for me. But I do know many people who like audiobooks (my sister-in-law, friends) and like you said, if they have grown up on it, it's perfect, but I do feel that they have missed out on the reading experience. Having said that, I am open to Kindle and other such devices, but I am not too open to the concept of someone else reading out a book to me, be it in the form of an audiobook or otherwise. It's just me, I guess :)

  3. It is strange, I remember this debate started by this man on a reading forum, about 'reading' plays. He was talking about how ridiculous it is to read plays when they are meant to be watched and enacted. Well, if only we can go and watch all the plays that we read. To be fair, we must at least try and get TV recordings or some such, something that I don't remember many professors doing. I don't remember really loving any plays that I 'read', except maybe Oscar Wilde. Long and strong debate, I guess.

  4. Shwe: Very insightful and an absolute classic piece.

    Do audiobooks do something that is absolutely 'new' or are they new technologies/packaging of the old oral story narrative? Like you rightly pointed out - childhood memories and associations - being read to by parents at bedtime, grandparents telling us stories as they fed us (especially during summer vacs, only way to get half a dozen rowdy kids to return indoors in the evening:) or to calm us at 'hot,flat and crowded' weddings at some interior town.
    Or intonation and old jokes remembered from reading renditions in litt. classes in school. (Things we first say when we bump into old school pals outside Ric video:))



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