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I have opinions. Wanna hear them? The case for audiobooks

Reading a book is to be taken on a journey. But you’d be amazed at how many people will stack versions of reading—particularly audio and text—into a hierarchy rivalling any decent wedding cake. Let’s begin with audiobooks, and question why a pair of eyeballs snuggled into the icing on the top tier, like twin globes on the Reunion Tower in Dallas, is superior to a pair of ears.

You’d think the very sensible explanation that an audiobook exists because some readers find text on a screen/page challenging would finish the argument. But no. There are still some people, clinging  with two fingers to a roughly hewn crag on their elitist hill, who feel that listening to an audiobook is not reading at all. That sort of elitism sits all too well next to the idea that, “I have to pay off my university degree and you paid nothing for the same degree which means that for three years you didn’t work as hard as I did,” as if somehow listening to an audiobook is akin to cheating or a free ride.

My theory, and I do have one, is that people get ticked off because a person listening to an audiobook can multi-task if they choose to. Vacuuming with Abby Craden. A person eyeball-reading doesn’t get the Abby Craden Vacuuming experience. Perhaps it’s envy but the idea smacks of privilege. It smacks of snobbery. It says eyeball-reading is deeper, more substantial because You. Can. Not. Move. Whilst. Engaged. In. Eyeball-Reading, and the listeners don’t engage with the text because they Move, therefore they’re not going on the same journey! (Exclamation for ironic emphasis) It’s not as if those naysayers regard eyeball-reading as extra difficult. It’s more like eyeball-readers see an imbalance in the level of concentration. One must engage with the words, you see, and there are people who truly believe that an audiobook is passive while eyeball-reading is active.

That belief stems from modality. Looking is low modality. So is hearing. We look at something. We hear noise. But at the other end of the modality scale is seeing and listening. Therefore, if an eyeball-reader is focusing on the words, the story, the characters, well, they’re not simply looking, are they? They’re seeing the text. It’s erroneous to think that ear-readers are passive because, funnily enough, they’re listening to that same text and focusing on the same things.

Anyone with a teenager knows about modality. Your teenager may hear the words, “Please hang up your towel,” but their listening—their engagement and focus—is currently in Hawaii, drinking a mojito, while looking about in confusion, “Something something wolf howl?”

Someone consuming an audiobook listens to the inflection, visualises the action, sees the characters speaking and actively places themselves in the scene. Equally, an eyeball-reader creates inflection, visualises the action, sees the characters speaking, and actively places themselves in the scene.

If the goal was to consume a book which made the reader feel, made the reader wonder, made them experience emotions, made them view something about the world differently or with a fresh perspective, or even confirm something they already believed, then they have Read. That. Book.

No matter how it was delivered into their brain.

Viewing audiobooks as inferior is to minimise oral storytelling: something that’s occurred throughout the entire history of the world. Well, since paper and books and wanted posters for Robin Hood. Bibles and their parchment-based friends were exclusively for the wealthy, and the royal. All those peasants toiling away on the land weren’t allowed to touch the written word with their potato-peeling fingers. Oral story-telling, the type where folk listen to an elder who shares culture and custom and law, is just as much reading as someone opening the Book of Kells, and  indulging in some knowledgeable Latin nodding at all the words scratched out in insular majuscule script.

Instead of…

Person A: “Hey there, have you read Coming Home by KJ?”

Person B: “Yesterday! I read it as soon as it downloaded to my Kindle. ”

Person A: “It’s great, isn’t it? I listened to the audiobook.”

Person B: “Oh! Um. Well, it’s not the same, is it?”

Why not…

Person A: “Hey there, have you read Coming Home by KJ?”

Person B: “Yesterday! I read it as soon as it downloaded to my Kindle. ”

Person A: “It’s great, isn’t it? I listened to the audiobook.”

Person B: “Great! How did the chip sandwich scene play out in your head? There was enough description that I imagined the park to be quite open, the two food trucks at the side and Sam and Grace seated on the park bench—”

Person A: “Yes! I totally saw that as well, but, even though the narrator didn’t say so, I imagined Grace sitting on the park table, not the bench seat.”

Person B: “Since we’ve both read the book, let’s grab a coffee and talk about how Cath Monroe needs her own novel.”

Reading a book is to be taken on a journey.

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