This essay was written by Brandon Monk.
I was asked this week, over a slice of pizza, whether audiobooks “count” as reading. I offered an off the cuff opinion, they do count as reading, but I’ll admit I only partially defended the position at the time. This week, I thought about the question in the context of some recent reading and I want to offer a more vigorous defense of the audiobook.
Three reasons you shouldn’t discount audiobooks completely:
1. Oral tradition is the basis of monotheistic religions.
I recently read Chatwin’s The Songlines. He explores nomadic tradition during a trip to Australia. From the trip he draws some conclusions which don’t necessarily differ from the generally accepted biblical scholar’s opinions. Songlines can be visualized as a “spaghetti of Iliads and Odysseys writhing this way and that in which every episode [is] readable in terms of geology.” Bruce Chatwin. The Songlines. London: Penguin, 1988. Print p. 13. Now, I won’t come close to doing songlines justice but they do creep into my thought process on the subject of audiobooks because they are part of a grand oral tradition that pre-existed formal written language. By way of additional example, Old Testament literature developed from oral traditions that likely pre-existed written language. Chatwin further concludes, “[t]he more I read the more convinced I became that nomads have been the crankhandle of history, if for no other reason than that the great monotheisms had all of them, surfaced from the pastoral milieu.”
Something great, through influence and creation can come, therefore, from specifically unwritten or oral tradition and stories. No matter your religious affiliation you can’t argue the influence of the Old Testament. Now, poorly written works made into audiobooks will read no better than the written form. They may read worse because it would take longer to finish a poorly written book thereby preventing you from moving on to more pleasurable material. But, well written works made into audiobooks, possibly even written works stemming from an oral history, have value.
2. Homer, the recognized, fictional or non-fictional author of The Iliad and The Odyssey probably never read a book, but instead relied on a tremendous oral tradition.
“Whoever Homer was, we may say confidently this of him: He was not a literary man. He had, I think, never read a book about books, if he ever read a book at all.” Brann, Eva T. H. Homeric Moments: Clues to Delight in Reading the Odyssey and the Iliad. Philadelphia: Paul Dry, 2002. Print p.6. We don’t even know whether The Iliad and The Odyssey were written themselves from the start or “collated out of many then current stories or lays…” (Brann 5). “In all probability the Iliad and the Odyssey drifted into being gradually, indefinably, more like popular myths than formal literary productions, through the untraceable process of ancient ballads sifting and blending.” Manguel, Alberto. Homer’s the Iliad and the Odyssey: A Biography. New York: Atlantic Monthly, 2007. Print p. 1.
We have never, as a literary community, allowed this to influence our opinion of the original work. Having accepted the oral tradition into our literary canon it is ironic a debate would now rage as to whether audiobooks have a place in a reader’s toolbox. The argument makes itself, but if oral tradition educated Homer on human behavior, why can’t we accept the modern incarnation, the audiobook?
3. Audiobooks have practical applications for modern man.
Android, Blackberry, iPod, iPad, iPhone. Millions have one by their head when they go to sleep. If you have one bedside you have access to thousands of free audiobooks. There are limitations, though. It’s hard to mark the margin of an audiobook with your reading pencil. It’s hard to read at varying paces depending on the content. It’s hard to reread a particularly confusing paragraph. Even with those limitations, though, I have found some uses for audiobooks.
4 Ways I Use Audiobooks:
a. Relief for my fatigued eyes.
I read quite a bit and sometimes I even read on an iPad. It’s bad for my eyes, I know. Sometimes, I want to keep reading and my eyes can’t take it. I stare at a computer screen at work and between work life and home life sometimes my eyes start this maddening twitch. Biological feedback signaling my eyes have had enough. Audiobooks can fill a practical need for optical rest.
b. While reading to slow yourself down and give the reading your full sensory attention.
I originally heard a suggestion from a good reader, Norm McDonald. In a tweet, he gave a tip, purchase both the audiobook and the paperback and use both simultaneously. Exterior noise can invade the reading space if you don’t set up barrier for it. Pipe the same noise into your head so you, in effect, have a double sensory dose.
I find the pace slower than I prefer. The expense doubles unless you borrow the audiobooks from a library or find them for free. You have to make sure you get the same edition in both forms if working with a translation, as well. If concentration is an issue, though, and you can’t find a quiet place to read, this provides another option.
c. Before bed.
Ever tried reading a book with your eyes closed? You can’t do it, unless you use an audiobook to send one last sweet image into your head before you sleep. A commonly taught memory trick is to read what you want to remember right before bed. This way the important material operating on your subconscious mind while you sleep. Audiobooks give you a way to do this. For aural learners the benefit could be massive.
d. For poetry and plays.
Poetry is meant to be read out loud so you can hear the cadence and rhythm. Plays are meant to be acted and while an audiobook is not a full action rendition, you can at least hear the spoken dialogue with real emotion. Hearing poetry and hearing plays may actually be preferable to simply reading them in silent isolation. If a live reading or acted play is available it trumps an audiobook reading. Absent a live option, however, you may find yourself exposed to more poetry and theatre than would ordinarily be accessible if you give audiobooks a chance.
Do you count audiobooks as reading?