Monday, January 15, 2024

Talking Books

I didn't have much of an idea what to write about today until I happened to read Aywren's post on her Audible backlog. I started to leave a comment but three paragraphs in I realized it probably ought to be a post of its own.  I did say I was going to do more of that kind of thing so it seemed like a shame to waste an opportunity.

Of course, I don't have an Audible backlog of my own to bewail. Unlike Aywren, who finds Audible's one free book a month offer more generous than she needs, I've always thought it almost insultingly miserly. I mean, come on! One book? A month! And they have the nerve to charge money for that?

As outrage goes, that's rather overstated. If I'm honest, it's not likely I'd listen to even one audio book a month, free or not, and that's the main reason I've never seriously considered subscribing. It's not that I don't like audio books per se. Who doesn't enjoy being read to? It's more that  I find it a very different experience to reading, one that doesn't always feel either as deep or as satisfying. I'm not sure I find them directly comparable at all.

Listening largely negates the mysterious alchemy that transubstantiates marks on a page into sounds and images in the mind. Reading fiction is an almost supernatural process, lifting consciousness out of the material realm into a place at once both more and less substantial, transporting the reader into the inner world of another entity. It's almost like possession. 

It's not an experience unique to reading, of course. Something extremely similar can occur while listening to music, watching a movie, listening to a radio play or even at the theater. I imagine there must be people who feel it while listening to audio books but I'm not one of them. I find it a reasonable way to absorb the plot and it certainly works acceptably for non-fiction but with the novel or the short story, too much of the nuance, the hinterland, the ineffable interchange between text and self is lost.

It doesn't help that no single reader, no matter how superb an actor, can play every character in such a way as to make it sound as though different people are speaking. At best, I find myself thinking about how impressed I am with the range and skill they're displaying. 

More commonly, I find some of the voices they're putting on distracting, even annoying. It's hard to become immersed in the narrative when you're wishing the reader would just read the damn book straight and stop putting on a funny voice, which is why I sometimes feel I might actually prefer an automated machine-read to an over-enthusiastic human. 

The counterpoint comes when I find myself mesmerized by the voice itself. I've known some readings to stimulate an ASMR reaction. Unfortunately, rather than intensifying the experience, it just means that when I shake myself free of the influence, I find I can't remember anything the hypnotic voice was telling me. 

Usually, though, when I hear an interesting story being read out loud by a professional reader, be that an actor or an author, I find myself wishing I could read the book for myself.  Which is what I often do.

At this stage the more astute or possibly cynical reader might well find themselves wondering "If he doesn't like audio books and he doesn't listen to them, how come he thinks he knows enough about the damn things to bang on about what's wrong with them for half a dozen paragraphs like this?" The answer is, of course, Radio 4. And Radio 4 Extra. (And also that I'm a know-it-all with a blog. Someone who feels entitled to pontificate at length about anything that takes my fancy, regardless of whether I have any actual knowledge or understanding of the topic in question. But we'll skate over that part...)

I've been listening BBC Radio 4 since I was a child. It's been a persistent presence in every house, bedsit, or apartment where I've ever lived, as well as many trains, busses or cars I've traveled in, not to mention a surprising number of offices and back-rooms where I've worked. These days I've mostly traded Radio 4 for its low-rent cousin, Radio 4 Extra, the station formerly known as Radio 7, becaause that's where you can reliably expect to hear nothing but re-cycled comedy, drama and light entertainment shows from the last seventy-five years, with no danger of ever having your self-indulgence interrupted by a determinedly neutral news reader, telling you things you really didn't want to know.

Both those stations trade heavily in fiction, read aloud, some of it specially recorded for broadcast, some of it retailed from commercial productions. I could not begin to count the number of Books of the Week or Books at Bedtime I've heard in over sixty years of listening, let alone the innumerable non-strand readings woven through the schedules from repeats of ought-to-have-been-forgotten detective stories from the 1950s to the infamous eight-hour Stephen Fry/Harry Potter Boxing Day marathon of 2000.

In short, I feel I've done my due diligence. I must have heard thousands of hours of prose being read aloud by now. Which is a lot but still nowhere near as much as I've read for myself. And that's the other reason I prefer reading to listening: it's so much more efficient.

Reading a book versus listening to the audio version is analogous to something I see people complaining about on blogs quite regularly, namely written game guides compared to YouTube videos. The big difference is that, for a gamer, sometimes it does make a lot more sense to watch another player doing something in a game than it does to read about it - if you want to learn a boss fight, for example, or understand a specific mechanic. 

Even for any activities in an RPG or an MMORPG that rely heavily on narrative, though, watching someone doing it can be far less efficient than reading a well-written guide. I would almost never want to watch a YouTube video of someone doing a quest I was going to do myself, for example, whereas I frequently have a written walk-through queued up to follow. I can find and absorb the information I'm looking for so much faster that way.

Whether reading a book or listening to someone read it aloud is faster is clearly going to depend on the reading speed of both reader and listener. For most readers, however, I'm almost certain the written word will be quicker. I'm no speed-reader but it takes me a lot less time to read a page of a novel myself than it does to listen to someone else read it to me and I imagine that applies to most people who habitually read for pleasure.

Of course, there are many situations where reading isn't an option but listening is, like when driving or working, and it's always nice to get double use out of your time. As with most forms of multi-tasking,though, the end result is two things done not quite as well as they could have been if they'd each been been done separately. 

At least that's how it works for me. I'm sure other people can do several things simultaneously with equal success but I find that even just listening to a play on the radio while I'm doing something else means I miss quite a lot. And that brings me to the final reason I strongly prefer to read my books rather than listen to them - it's so much easier to re-read a sentence or a paragraph I haven't fully followed than to replay the tape or disk or file of someone else reading it out loud.

The day may come when the decision about whether to read or listen to stories may be taken away from me but until then I'm going to go on reading my books the old-fashioned way. And I have a lot of them to read. I started out intending to post about my book backlog, which grew enormously over Christmas and into the New Year. As so often happens, though, the preamble turned into the post so I'll save that for another day.


  1. I tried listening to audiobooks back when the fifth book of The Wheel of Time came out. Of course, back then you had either cassette or CD, and unless you wanted to pay a lot of money you only got the "abbreviated version" of The Fires of Heaven. I'd already read the book beforehand, but I wanted something to listen to on my drive to and from work, so I figured I'd check the cassettes out from the library.

    After about one or two drives, I had to stop using the cassettes. The narration wasn't in the same 'voice' that my internal narrator has, and being an abridged novel they cut out far too much for me to easily follow the story without having read it beforehand.

    For some people, audiobooks make sense, but for me they don't. I started reading Pride and Prejudice the other day, and I can't imagine listening to it as an audiobook. I've spent far too much time rereading and puzzling through the differences in society and narration in general for me to be able to simply listen to the story raw the first time.

    1. I have a natural aversion to abbreviated versions of anything. It feels like a rip-off, not getting the full version, plus I always wonder what they left out and why. Unfortunately, full-length reads of something like The Wheel Of Time come on dozens and dozens of CDs and cost an absolute fortune. The price of audio books on CD is breathtakingly high. It's hardly surprising most of the market for audio has moved to Audible and similar non-physical formats.

      That said, a decade ago we were told audio on CD was finished and we weren't going to stock it any more. And yet we still do and people still buy it. And I suspect that with the current fears about losing access to non-physical content, audio on CD might actually grow a little. That suits me for music but I won't be buying any CD audio books. As for cassettes...

    2. I'll be honest in that I prefer physical media for music than purely digital forms for the reason that we're entirely dependent upon some faceless company keeping the digital media available. Well, that and the little issue that corporations have changed the "ownership" paradigm of digital media to a "rent" rather than a "buy" scenario. Once I get that CD or LP, it is MINE and I can do with it what I wish, outside of selling copies of the same.

  2. Glad I could help generate an idea for a post for you!

    I've debated and wondered about the difference between reading a book vs. audio books. I do read some, and have even been picking up physical books in the last year, which is something I haven't done much of years before. I have a pretty big backlog of ebooks on Kindle as well but... I'm not even going to try to make a dent in that (I get a lot of those from the free ebook Reddit).

    For me, I'm a very slow reader. I also spend about 85% of my waking time on a PC, and while I do try to pull myself away to read a book or ebook, it's just not very likely to happen. Therefore, if I don't engage in audiobooks while I'm doing mindless activities on a PC, I may not engage in novel-length stories at all.

    Maybe one day I can build more of a book-reading habit into my day. I did finish at least two non-audio books last year, which is a lot more than I have in the past!

    1. Kindle reading is worth another post on its own. I'll put that in my possible post list. I would actually prefer to get my books on Kindle, purely for reasons of space and convenience, but I get 50% discount on physical and audio books where I work, plus an endless stream of free books in the form of proofs and promotional copies. That means I can't really justify paying more for the ebook than it would cost me to have the physical version, even though our house is so full of books I don't know where to put them any more.

  3. I've tried listening to audiobooks going to and from work but sometimes it happens that you reach a crucial point in the narrative just as you pull into your parking spot. Do you listen a bit longer and get in trouble for being late? Eep! There are some annoying readers out there, and if I'm just trying out an author, and the narrator is terrible, it can make me feel the book/author is terrible, and that's not fair. My book to be read list for this year is HUGE already. Authors of mysteries and thrillers are having a field day in these tenuous times writing about even scarier things than the news presents. Happy reading, however you enjoy your books. Atheren

    1. A good few years back there were a couple of people at work who liked to listen to audio books while they unpacked the books off the shop floor and I heard several of Tony Robinson's Discworld audio books. If I hadn't already known and liked the books in written form, I would never have gone anywhere near them on that exposure. I thought his interpretation of the characters sapped all the personality out of most of them. And yet, he did pretty much the whole series and I know his readings were quite popular. They would have put me off the series for good if it was all I knew about Discworld!

  4. I do both. I have - over the last few years of my Audible sub - gotten into autobiographies as read by the author. Like most recently, Patrick Stewart and "Making it so" as written and read by the man himself. These I like very much as it feels almost like a conversation (if read well), and its not really that important to remember details. You are just enjoying listening to someone talking about their life.


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