Audiobooks

Living in Sudbury and going to school in Boston this summer has been my first real experience with commuting by car. It differs in a few ways from commuting by subway. On one hand, you control your environment (temperature, noise level, etc.) and you aren’t surrounded and jostled by other people. On the other, you can’t zone out, it’s harder to calculate the amount of time the trip will take on any given morning, you’re burning up a lot of fuel (and paying tolls), and you are still surrounded by people – they’re just in cars. All in all, I’m looking forward to returning to getting around primarily on foot and by subway, but one thing that has made commuting bearable has been audiobooks.

Before this year, I never listened to audiobooks. On the train, I could read real books, and/or listen to music – but because of the noise in the subway stations, trying to catch every word of an audiobook would have been an exercise in frustration and futility. I figured audiobooks were good for people who had to commute in cars, and I did start to get them out of the library for road trips down to DC or up to Boston. I started out only listening to books I’d read before – Harry Potter, The Picture of Dorian Gray – and I found that narrators with British accents were easier to take. Because the material was familiar, I didn’t worry about missing a word or a sentence or a paragraph here or there if I needed to pay close attention to road signs, traffic signals, or (more recently) instructions from the GPS (“recalculating”).

Over the past six weeks, I’ve spent about two hours driving every weekday. Music alone wasn’t going to keep me from banging my head against the steering wheel in impatience as I crawled along Route 20; I discovered NPR’s Morning Edition, and that was good, but then I began to take audiobooks out of the library. Tentatively, starting first with books I wanted to reread, like The Historian and Jane Eyre. Eventually I picked up a new (for me) book, Christopher Moore’s The Stupidest Angel. I’d read Moore’s books before (I highly recommend A Dirty Job), so I knew the material would be humorous rather than heavy, and I wasn’t going to be completely lost if I didn’t pay strict attention. And what do you know, it worked out just fine!

Most recently, I began listening to Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, which I’d read for the first time in 2007. It blew me away then, and I put it on my list of books to re-read as soon as I’d finished it. The voice on the audiobook was excellent – I have no complaints – but then it was the weekend and I wasn’t in the car, so I took the book off my shelf, picked up where the audiobook had left off – somewhere in Part 2 – and read the rest of the book in one sitting, because 1) I can read faster than most people can talk, and 2) I didn’t really have anything else to do that day.

All of this is to say that, while I certainly wasn’t opposed to audiobooks before, I am all for them now, especially if I’m going to be sitting in traffic. In his excellent book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us), Tom Vanderbilt writes, “The ‘audiobook,’ virtually unheard of before the 1980s, represents a business worth $871 million a year, and wouldn’t you know it, ‘traffic congestion’ gets prominent mention in sales reports from the Audio Publishers Association” (p. 17). Color me unsurprised.

But – is it reading? You get the content, sure, and you get the pronunciation as well (like many well-read people I know, I often run up against words that I can spell, define, and use, but have no idea how to pronounce, because I’ve only ever seen them written down and never heard them spoken aloud). But what about the act of reading itself? The only source I could remember that touched on this particular question was a New York Times Magazine article on blindness and literacy, “Listening to Braille.” What with advances in audio technology, is it still necessary to learn Braille? If your “reading” is actually “listening,” are you literate? There is a storm of opinion surrounding this matter.

For the majority of us, though, luckily, literacy isn’t the issue; we can read, just not at the wheel. And that’s where audiobooks come in handy.

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