But is it reading?

Audiobooks go back to the mid 1930s. They were first given to First World War veterans. This quote from The Times in 1936 shows one blind ex-soldier’s enthusiasm:

The person who thought of the Talking Book ought to have a monument three times the size of Nelson’s. This is how I enjoy my Talking Book. Every night about 10 o’clock I make the fire up, draw my armchair near then I switch on the Talking Book. Don’t you think that is real luxury? Not being able to sleep much and being very poor at Braille you can imagine how useful the Talking Book is to me.”

The first audiobook was Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. In those days they were known as “talking books”. Such books were recorded on 12-inch shellac gramophone records, with each side lasting 25 minutes. Instead of the then standard 75 rpm, records could be played at 24 revolutions per minute, so that more narration could be crammed onto a disc – each side of the record could hold 45 minutes. Nevertheless, this meant that a normal book would require ten double-sided records.

People had been recording literature since the invention of the phonograph in 1877. Thomas Edison had wanted to use it to record Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby. Had it ever been recorded, this would have been the first audiobook. But recording an entire novel on wax cylinders, which could only record four minutes at a time, was out of the question. The progress of audiobooks has always been dependent on technology. In the 1980s it was the Walkman and the car cassette player which gave them another massive boost, attracting the interest of book retailers, who saw their commercial potential. Now it was possible to hear your favourite books on the go. The possibility of multitasking is what makes audiobooks so attractive to me. Like podcasts they have transformed what used to be mundane tasks such as commuting, exercising, cleaning the house or cooking into something more pleasurable.

There was, however still one problem. A long book required a lot of cassettes. Only when the MP3 player came around did this problem go away. Now with file compression you can fit various unabridged books on one device. Gone are they days when you needed 30 cassettes to hear all of Gone with the Wind. The leading company today is Audible.com, which is now a subsidiary of Amazon. According to Wikipedia, Audible’s content includes “over 150,000 audio programs from leading audiobook publishers, broadcasters, entertainers, magazine and newspaper publishers and business information providers, amounting to over 1,500,000 hours of audio programming.”

Audiobooks pose a problem of definition. Should you refer to readers or listeners? I tend to say I read a book, before correcting myself and saying I listened to it. Whatever term you choose, there is nothing easy about an audiobook. Indeed it could be said that the audiobook demands more concentration than the printed version. Traditional reading gives you the freedom to go at your own pace, stopping to savour a passage, or skimming to reach the end of the page. You can’t do this so easily with an audiobook. And if you happen to get distracted, it’s not so easy to find exactly where you were. It is often necessary to listen to segments of an audio book more than once to allow the material to be understood and retained satisfactorily. I don’t normally listen to them in bed, as I am normally out cold after ten or fifteen minutes.

Storytelling began as an oral art, after all, and there is something profoundly satisfying about hearing a book read aloud by a talented narrator. There is something immersive about the experience. Charles Dickens used to go on tour reading from his works. However, our aural culture is very different to Homer’s time. Many books were not created to be read aloud. Harold Bloom, the literary critic favours deep reading:

Deep reading really demands the inner ear as well as the outer ear,” said “You need the whole cognitive process, that part of you which is open to wisdom. You need the text in front of you.”

In the end I think the two ways of enjoying books are valid. I went through a phase where I was listening to a lot of them. However, since I bought my e-reader I have gone back to having the text in front of me. With all the wonderful podcasts available I just haven’t found the time to listen to so many. But I remain a big fan. Anything that gets people interested in books should be welcomed.


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