I have a confession to make: I love audiobooks. I just spent the last hour poking around on Librivox.org, listening to fairy tales read aloud by devoted volunteers, and I was reminded of an argument I had earlier this year. I told one of my friends that I’d been listening to an audiobook version of the book we were studying in class, and he was horrified. He could see no reason to turn to an audiobook when I was capable of reading the text myself. The only excuses for their use that he could rationalise were listen while performing a relatively mindless task, like driving or exercising, or when vision prohibits reading.
I readily agreed, of course, that these are wonderful reasons. However, I maintain they aren’t by any stretch of the imagination the *only* reasons to listen to audiobooks. While I admit that my first love will likely always be the strong physical sense of a paper book, audiobooks speak to a completely different sensual base. The form of books compliments their content with lush surfaces, evocative layouts and designs, tactile and olfactory sensations, and endless more endearing qualities that I can’t do justice to here, but until they are read aloud, much of the poetry is lost. The sound of the words adds a texture to the story that can be skimmed over during silent reading. When a text is read aloud, even if I read it to myself, I find that the rhythms and cadence of the prose take on a clearer meaning.
Reading a book aloud to myself helps me to understand how I feel the author intends to be read. The emotional inflection that I expect may be different from what others ascribe to the text, and hearing someone else read their meaning into it can be very enlightening. Sometimes an audiobook gives me a fresh perspective on a text that I hadn’t considered in my own reading. Something as subtle as changing the pacing of a scene can throw unexpected insights into my analysis. The insights that an actor brings to their performance can invite responses fromthe audience that open up new facets to old arguments.
On a basic social level, listening to someone read a story aloud reminds me of childhood. As children, we’re read aloud to a great deal. As we get older, we tend to lose most of that immediate sharing of a written text. There is something very intimate about reading together; it invites the participants to enjoy a communal emotional response, facilitating discussion among the audience. Public performance is a valuable aspect of creative culture, and belittling recorded audio performances of written texts denies them a deserved position in the tradition. There is a deep pleasure to be had in being read to, and a well crafted audiobook can perform the task in a very similar fashion.
Honestly, I don’t think I’m being unreasonable here. But then again, anyone who can’t see the allure of Stephen Fry reading Harry Potter must be a hopeless case.