When I first started listening to audiobooks, I think in 2007, it changed my life. For zero effort, my quality of life increased exponentially. At the time I was commuting an hour a day to graduate school, and I had no time to read for pleasure. My drive became one of my favorite times of the day. I was able to immerse myself in narrative for an hour a day, something I’d been sorely missing. And I felt like I was accomplishing something by reading a book and checking another title off of the ever-growing list of books I want to read. The commute was no longer a chore, but a pleasure. I still feel this way. As long as I have an audiobook on, the only thing I don’t like about driving is spending money on gas.
There are some things that get lost in an audiobook, some visual experiences that do not translate to audio format. I listened to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and had no idea about the visual effects that are in that book until I randomly picked a copy up in a bookstore. In general, most people remember the things they hear less accurately than the things they read, and in books with complicated plots this can be problematic, especially since looking up a past scene is more of a hassle when you’re dealing with CDs in a moving car than paging back and skimming in a book. There have been some books that I tried to listen to and gave up, resigning myself to reading them on page or screen. The long sentences in Virginia Woolf and Faulkner just confused me when I tried to follow them and remember the subject of the sentence after 100 words of description got between that subject and its verb. Books with nonchronological plots or casts of thousands are also somewhat difficult in this format.
However, there are some things an audiobook, especially one with a talented narrator, can do that a print book can’t. The narrator can make different voices for characters, and can give a whole new interpretation to an author’s words through inflection and emphasis. I heard that for this reason, Jim Dale, the incredibly talented voice actor who created hundreds of unique voices for Harry Potter, only read the books a chapter at a time while recording them, so that he wouldn’t accidentally give away any surprises.
Some other books I have most enjoyed on audio have been read by their authors. Sherman Alexie’s narration in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian let me hear the combination of his lilting Native accent, along with his more standard pronunciation, which only enhanced the way the book communicated the character’s dual nature and inner cultural conflict. Angela’s Ashes would not have been half so fun if I had had to imagine the Irish accent instead of Frank McCourt providing it. And Tina Fey’s Bossypants is even more hilarious when she performs it, since she is, after all, a performer.
If someone asks how I can read so many books so quickly, the main answer is because audiobooks help me to find reading time during moments I would otherwise waste doing a single unengaging task like driving. Multitasking isn’t always the best, most efficient or stress-free idea, but this is one example of multitasking that certainly has more benefits than drawbacks. Putting on an audiobook while your hands are busy but your mind is not can add the joy of narrative to otherwise boring, mundane moments. I would recommend audiobooks to everyone who says they don’t have time to read. If you have enough attention to listen to NPR in the car, you have time to listen to an audiobook. No excuses!
There have been sacrifices, though. After over 4 years of listening to audiobooks in the car instead of the radio, I have become completely disconnected from popular music. There have been several times when I embarrassed myself by asking “Who?” when hearing the name of the latest new band. I just don’t hear music as much as I used to, and am still surprised to find that I don’t really miss it. There are very few songs that hold my attention the way that a good narrative does. And usually the songs I like the most are the ones with interesting lyrics. What can I say? I’m a verbal person! When I tell people I just don’t listen to music, they’re shocked. My students in particular, for whom music is life’s blood, do not understand how I can live without listening to some kind of music for hours every day. (Of course, for my part, I cannot comprehend a life in which reading, or at least narrative, are not an inalienable source of pleasure. My students and I sometimes disconnect in several ways, but I think this is the most important.)
The other downside is that I have become a little bit addicted to my audiobooks. I am impatient with being bored or kept waiting, unless I have my portable audiobook on. I hate taking showers because it’s just so boring spending 5 minutes doing a task that does not engage my mind, when I cannot listen to my audiobook. I have unintentionally been rude in some public spaces by listening to my audiobook with my earbuds when a salesperson was trying to get my attention, but I always apologize and pull the earbuds out quickly. I am certainly not the only one guilty of this venial social sin, and I comfort myself that at least my earbuds are not so loud that everyone hears the story (another contrast with my students).