‘In Praise of Audiobooks’, by Ben Brooker


Photo provided by Ben Brooker.

They say nobody can remember their own birth, that little if anything of our first one or two years of life are stored away in the brain as memories. Our ability to make and make sense of narratives, crucial in helping us to form memories, is still developing. One of the earliest things I can recall is learning the alphabet. I would have been five, the year 1990. I can see some version of that classroom, my first, with its plastic chairs and illustrated, poster-sized alphabet cards strung up along the wall above the whiteboard. Each letter is big and blue, rendered in both lower and uppercase, and there are little frilly adornments—flowers, tildes?—in opposite corners. It’s a strange thing to remember – it takes a strong effort of will to imagine myself back into a consciousness in which letters and words hold no meanings, or ones that are only just beginning to be graspable. How precarious the body seems without language, how partial. To a writer, especially, the thought comes with a tremor, a kind of psychic vertigo.

My childhood was full of stories I heard rather than read. There’s a photograph of me from not long before I started school, slumped on a beanbag, and wearing only a pair of green and white striped shorts. A chunky pair of headphones on my head lead to the home amplifier and cassette tape player. A picture book is open in my lap. I’m listening to an audio version of Willow (or is it The Dark Crystal? – it’s hard to tell) by the American company Buena Vista, one of many such adaptations in their series of “read-along book & tapes”. My expression is inscrutable, showing an awareness of the photographer’s presence but not whether I’m bothered by it. I don’t look ‘lost in the story’. If I had to guess, I’d say I’m more interested in the progress of Willow Ufgood’s quest to vanquish the evil queen Bavmorda (or Jen’s to restore the Dark Crystal with her magic shard) than in whoever is taking the picture—obviously a family member—but there is still a slight tension there, an in-betweenness: not removed from the world, yet not entirely part of it either.

“The experience of hearing a book,” Neil Gaiman has written, “is often much more intimate, much more personal” than that of reading one. I’m not sure about this. The highest praise we often give a storyteller—whether an author like Gaiman, or a singer like Sinatra—is that we feel they are talking to us, alone, to the exclusion of all others, as though they are sitting right alongside us, revealing worlds and ideas that nobody else is privy to in that moment. I don’t believe an audiobook is any more likely to bring an author closer to us in this way than a traditional book, but Gaiman is right in one respect: that hearing a book is an experience distinct from reading one, with pleasures all its own.

They weren’t called audiobooks at first. At the beginning of the medium’s commercialisation in the late 1970s, they were known as ‘recorded books’ or ‘books on tape’ after the rival New York- and California-based companies that produced them. Generally read by fruity-voiced actors, certain stigmas attached themselves to these books in the early days: that they were only for blind people or those who had lost the ability to read through disease or trauma; that old people listened to them to mitigate their loneliness or because normal-sized print had become too much of a strain. I can remember a shelf full of such books on tape at my maternal grandmother’s house – in my mind they’re Agatha Christies, but equally they might have been by Doris Lessing or Iris Murdoch.

In the 1980s, families increasingly listened to recorded books on long car trips, circumventing radio’s intermittency and repetitiveness, but doing little to ameliorate the medium’s image problem. Being a nerd, however, I didn’t much care. The first ‘proper’ book on tape I owned was a secondhand, perhaps ex-library, copy of Argo’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde read by Tom Baker on two cassettes, and bought no doubt in the mid-1990s off the back of my burgeoning obsession with Doctor Who. (Were I that age again today, I might well download the MP3 version from Amazon for $6.99.) Aspects of that recording, such as Kenny Clayton’s occasional bursts of Doctor Who-ish synthesisers, made it into that part of our family lore reserved for cultural touchstones – the quotes and musical phrases, the (usually high camp) acting flourishes of our favourite films and TV shows. We would endlessly imitate Baker’s throaty delivery—all clipped r’s and posh vocal fry—of the book’s opening description of protagonist Mr. Utterson: “… cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary, and yet somehow”—comical upward inflection here—“lovable.” Perhaps Gaiman, when he used the word ‘intimate’, was imagining someone like me in that photo, the archetypal audiobook listener with headphones on, in deep communion with a single voice. But my brothers and I must have listened to Dr. Jekyll like in those road trips in the 80s, as a shared experience, not confined to headphones; a movie without a screen where, unlike in the cinema, we had to change the reels ourselves, flipping over or swapping the tape every half an hour or so.

The most often cited audiobook skeptic is Harold Bloom, the American literary critic. By Bloom’s way of thinking: “deep reading really demands the inner ear as well as the outer ear. You need the whole cognitive process, that part of you which is open to wisdom. You need the text in front of you.” According to this kind of analysis, we experience audiobooks shallowly and somewhat passively, in a way that British writer Will Self grumpily characterised, along with adult colouring books, as ‘infantile’ on an episode of The Book Club last year. But is this right? If I had the task of writing a long, academic treatise on a work of fiction—the sort of thing Bloom writes, often brilliantly it must be said, for a living—then, yes, I would want to read it. (Perhaps I would listen to an audio recording as well, seeing as these may be complementary rather than mutually exclusive activities, opening up different ways of ‘seeing’ the text.)

But of the 1.6 billion hours of audio downloaded in 2015 by subscribers of Audible, the world’s largest seller of downloadable audiobooks, presumably vanishingly few were destined for close study rather than less formal modes of learning or, more probable again, simple enjoyment – “the pleasure of… characters, setting, dialogue, drama, and the Scheherazadean impulse to know what happens next,” in the words of the New Yorker’s John Colapinto. I wonder, too, if the medium makes a difference, altering the context in which stories can be listened to and thereby which stories we engage with.

For a while there, in the early 2000s, the audiobook looked finished. Cassette tapes were becoming increasingly obsolete, and their CD replacements in the audiobook world were bulky and expensive to produce, sometimes running to ten or more discs. The iPod changed all that, in the process untethering the listening of audiobooks from the car and home stereos that had determined their context – noisy road trips on the one hand, (dare I say it?) bookish introspection on the other. Portable media players have freed us up to hear stories in myriad ways: while exercising, doing housework, walking the dog or to the office. I’ve listened to a range of books—literary fiction, popular science, classic novels—while doing each of these things, and not all seemed to me to be suited to the medium. (Though, no doubt, it’s not all a question of medium: some would have been slogs in any form, and others may have benefited from being paired with a different reader.)

Sometimes I find myself wondering how much the iPod, had it been around when I was a teenager, might have added to my lifetime’s ‘reading’. For as long as I can remember I’ve suffered from travel sickness, and for some reason it’s especially bad on buses. During the five years I was at high school my daily commute by bus took an hour a day. How many average-sized books, around 300 pages let’s say, might I have got through in those roughly 1,000 hours had the mere thought of reading not been enough to turn my stomach? 166? Any of us, I suspect, would happily sacrifice a little of Bloom’s alleged depth of engagement for another small library’s worth of ideas and wonderment and trashy thrills. The real dichotomy here is not that between deep and superficial ways of engaging with texts, but between whether or not we engage with them at all. In an article on the increasing demand for audiobooks in Australia, Joshua Jennings found that even those who consciously ‘consume’ audiobooks, like marketer Andrew Antoniou, “wouldn’t actually choose to listen to an audiobook if [he] had an hour on a park bench,” and would opt for paper in that context. But for the time-poor—busy, child-raising middle-class professionals like Antoniou, or long-haul truck drivers with hours alone on the road between stops—the appeal of audiobooks is obvious.

And what of the charge that listening to recorded books is the childish aural equivalent of sucking on a mother’s teat when we’re old enough to be feeding ourselves? In David Byrne’s How Music Works—I’m in the middle of listening to the audiobook version narrated by Andrew Garman, but own a hardcopy that I’ve been dipping into as well—the former Talking Heads frontman writes that: “If recent neurological hypotheses regarding mirror neurons are correct, then one could say that we empathetically “sing”—with both our minds and the neurons that trigger our vocal and diaphragm muscles—when we hear and see someone else singing. In this sense, watching a performance and listening to music is always a participatory activity.” Bloom doesn’t account for this kind of cognition, one that must also surely be in play as we are read to, priming us to receive not just wisdom but also the empathetic enlargement that has long been an acknowledged—and now scientifically verified—effect of literature. We know that the more children are read to, the better their literacy and numeracy skills are likely to be. But is there any good reason that it should end there, at age six or so? That we must break the habit of being read to if we are to fully assimilate into the adult world, that the pinnacle of literacy and numeracy is to only read to ourselves?

In his 2012 New Yorker article ‘The pleasures of being read to’, John Colapinto describes an email exchange with the neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran. Colapinto wanted to know if, extrapolating from the Homeric oral storytelling tradition, our brains were in fact hardwired to receive narratives via the ear rather than the eye. In his response, Ramachandran argued that language comprehension and production evolved in conjunction with hearing, and some 144,000 years prior to the advent of writing. While writing, according to the neuroscientist, ‘piggybacks’ on some of the same circuitry as speech, it’s possible that the aural comprehension of narrative is both more immediate, and—taking place closer to the brain’s emotional centres—evocative.

Anyone who has listened to a great audiobook reader—a Jim Dale or a Martin Jarvis or a Davina Porter—will have an intuitive grasp of what Ramachandran is getting at. (As will anyone, by way of a negative epiphany, who has heard an otherwise interesting book rendered unlistenable by an ill-cast reader.) But there is another, important but overlooked sense in which listening to a book can enrich rather than detract from our experience of a writer’s words. I’m thinking, specifically, of those audiobooks that are read by their author instead of a professional actor or career voiceover artist. One of the first books I downloaded from Audible last year after signing up was Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. The book opens with Ronson’s first-person narration of his encounter with a spambot, which begins tweeting using Ronson’s name. The spambot’s creator, a young academic, refuses to take it down, citing its research value, and Ronson becomes embroiled in a farcical, long-running “war” with his unasked for avatar.

I had never heard Ronson speak when I downloaded the book but found myself laughing out loud within moments of starting it, something I rarely do with hardcopy books no matter how amusing they are (put it down to my English reserve). There was something about the weave of Ronson’s voice—that soft, Welsh-tinged lilt, slightly lisping, and always on the verge of a self-deprecating or skewering jibe—that left me helplessly engaged. Not all writers are best placed to bring their own words to life, but when they are the results can be illuminating, even alchemical in their close fit of written and spoken voices. It happened again, not long afterwards (albeit in a very different literary context) with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, a damning though lyrical assessment of race relations in the United States as seen through a frame of memoir. Coates’s distinctively African-American rhythm and intonation, especially his pronunciation of the recurring word ‘body’, ineffably sad with its long, drawn-out ‘o’ sound, lodged in my head for days and weeks, becoming almost a leitmotif of the book’s themes of racial oppression and erasure. Such experiences may not be ‘deep’ in the sense that Bloom means, but by any definition of literature that takes as among its starting points the power of stories to extend our empathic range, and to universalise what we had thought a suffering particular to us, then that’s meaningful enough for me.

There is a sense in which audiobooks bring us full circle. For John Colapinto, they return us to Homer’s epic poetry, to the ‘primal campfire’ where stories were passed from generation to generation by oral storytellers. For J.C. Hallman, author of B & Me, they recall a time, not nearly as long ago, when “most people had access to the contents of books only through scheduled public readings, and so going to readings was really what reading was because most people couldn’t afford to sit and read a book in the quiet way that we now think of [as] reading.” The way we encounter narratives changes over time: we are only just beginning to understand, for example, how reading things on a screen may be different on a neurological level to reading things on paper, may even be rewiring the brain. But I can’t imagine we will ever exhaust the possibilities of the human voice as a vehicle for stories that inform us, that move and perhaps change us.

Ben Brooker is a writer, editor, critic, essayist, and playwright. His work has been featured by Overland, New Matilda, New Internationalist, Australian Book Review, RealTime, and Daily Review. Ben was a featured playwright at the Emerging Writers’ Festival Adelaide Roadshow in September 2014, and at the National Play Festival in Adelaide in July 2015. His most recently produced work for the stage was the dystopian triptych This Storm (which he also directed), a critical and commercial success at the 2016 Adelaide Fringe Festival. He is currently an inaugural Sydney Review of Books Emerging Critics Fellow.