Audio books saved my reading life


I owe the survival of my reading life to audio books, magazine audio editions and text to speech technology. Without them, my reading would be limited to tweets, skimming over web sites or pawing through abandoned waiting room magazines. I use the term “audio books” to refer to all three categories.

Being read to by a disembodied voice is a very different “reading” experience. Most of us are to ancient to remember being read to as kids. I do not claim that audio books are a replacement for “traditional” reading. Yet in a cultural famine, you can’t be too picky about the format of your intellectual nutrients.

It was an audio novel that made me realise the potential of audio books. An engaging story in a professionally recorded audio book has the immersive-ness of a radio play. I was surprised how vividly I could visualise the imagery, even while driving. I felt I was recalling something from memory. A particularly delightful aspect is the narrator’s “voice acting” of the dialogue. It gives a unique colouring to the characters which so far, has fitted precisely to my mental imagery. It gives the story and the overall experience a depth not found in silent reading.

Audio periodicals/magazines are a different experience. Audio editions of The Economist sound like a personalised news broadcast. I have become quite familiar with the very British but surprisingly un snobbish voices of the three narrators. Despite varying accents, their skilful use of tone and inflection carry the humour and irony that marinates everything The Economist prints. I don’t even miss the print magazine’s captions any more.

Text to speech features on the iPhone have allowed me to “read” online texts in depth when I’m off line. The convenience quite easily helped me forget the mechanical nature of the voice. Now its just another accent in a life time of filtering accents.

The greatest joy of audio books is the richness they bring to life’s mindless tasks. The drudgery of commuting (sitting in traffic), or cutting up the bodies are elevated to intellectual activities. The Economist audio edition replaced YFM as my companion on the morning commute long ago. On the evening grind back, I switch to one of my two audio novels (I have listened to them both countless times). It is perhaps the most enjoyable form of close reading ever invented. No doubt I alarmed the people in the chariots around me with bursts of laughter to Mohammed Hanif’s Exploding Mangos. Audio books have even freed up time in the toilet (more on that later) for writing blog posts like this one.

I value audio books the same way a passenger on The Titanic values a spot in a life boat. As in a lifeboat on an arctic night, there are some minor annoyances. The world of professional audio books is dominated by a company called Audible. Though I have no quibble with its products, it has strange geographic restrictions on what you can download. These nutty geo restrictions can even filter down to other resellers such as iTunes.

The restrictions are not very clearly stated on sales propaganda. You only slam into them when you try to make a purchase. This forum post sums up the user frustrations quite well.

The complete alternative to professionally recorded audio books is Librivox, which calls itself an

Extensive collection of free audio books read by volunteers; the goal is to record every book in the public domain.

I have have yet to dip into this pool though I may eventually have to. Audio books are more expensive than ebooks and “traditional books”. Both formats have been pushed out of my reach the priorities of survival. Priorities that become tasks and routines which shatter my days into fragments. Such fragments have made the time for immersing into books an unattainable luxury.

Before audio books rescued my reading life, I tried desperately to life hack some solutions. Toilet reading was an early effort. A later attempt was “snatch reading” a few lines off ebooks on the phone when I had a moment.

Both processes are unsatisfying disheartening. It feels as if I’m being jolted in and out of the book’s universe. The sensation is worse when it takes over a week to read 2 pages. Ultimately it creates a feeling of stretching mouthfuls of a good meal over the course of a few days.

Audio books (or should I say “Audio Texts”) are not a reading habit of this omni digital age. It harks backs to the reading traditions of the ancients when books were meant to be read aloud to the illiterate masses. Silent reading was a rare if not strange sight. Aside from the historic trivia, audio books have other education efficiencies as described by Denise Johnson, an assistant professor of reading education.

I understand that paper book/traditional reading purists would insist on the superiority of their experience. My “reading situation” has increased my appreciation for paper books and the private escape of silent reading. Certainly puts my oddly nosy interest in other people’s book shelves into perspective. I remain in awe of people who can gluttonously indulge in traditional books and have decadent shelf space to gloat about it to wretches like me.

The fact is that life is brutal. Its brutalities demands sacrifices of our time and attention. In the face of which, audio books are not a bad compromise to keep the flicker of reading alive.

What has your journey into audio books been like? Are you on the verge of crossing over? Has it shifted after you started listening to them?

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2 thoughts on “Audio books saved my reading life

  1. Only audiobook I ever tried was Doors of Perception. Couldn’t get through it until I came across a copy in a relatives bookshelf.

    Have you ever scrolled through Pennsound?

    http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/authors.php

    There’s even a Pennsound Radio (right now playing HD reading from Helen in Egypt)

    Lookout for: Ginsberg singing Blake, Robert Creeley’s radioplay ‘Listen’

    I got hooked onto this after downloading a torrent “98 poets read their own work” including Ferlinghetti reading ‘Underwear’!

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