Lit Life

Does It Count?: Audiobooks as Oral Tradition

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Every year I do a 52 books in 52 weeks challenge. Last year was my first year completing it (hit sixty books–what what!). Yet, I have a confession to make: a solid portion of them were audiobooks.

I know. “Slander against all that is literature!” “How could you?! You’re an English teacher!” “That’s not really reading!” “You’re a liar! Your pants are on fire.”

Are we done? Got it out of your system? Ok. So, now that it’s tech week, let’s talk about the good and bad of audiobooks.

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My current audiobook read: Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard.

Let’s start with the bad. Let’s look at some of the common arguments against audiobooks.

  • Lack of retaining information when it is just auditory compared to physically reading a text
  • Inability to stop, re-read, and linger over good passages
  • Not knowing the spelling of character names or settings
  • Different mental process to listen and to read
  • Easier to get distracted while listening than while reading a text
  • No page flipping, not even the electronic kind

I think these are all valid arguments. However, I still think instead of this epic battle between audio and physical books, it is really a matter of intention and preference. A story told aloud or a story written down is still a story. Someone texting you about what happened over the weekend versus someone calling you still gets the job done. (And as my friends know, I always prefer the phone call.) If you can comprehend it, if you can connect with it, then does it really matter what form it is in?

In terms of intention, I listen to audiobooks mainly for entertainment, not scholarship. So, I use audio books mostly for YA books not complex literature. If I were going to teach a book for the first time to my students, I wouldn’t listen to just the audiobook because I would have to read it more critically. I’d want to annotate it and be able to know page numbers and character names spellings. I’d want to dive into the language and highlight passages that moved me or were great examples of literary devices or style. It wouldn’t make sense to listen to it. However, if I were just simply wanting to hear a good story, and I didn’t plan on really doing anything to respond to the text–write an article, teach a lesson–then the audiobook would suffice.

So it comes down to intention, and then ultimately preference. Some people simply do not like shifting gears to audiobooks. Their mind can’t retain it as well, or they miss the feel of a book in their hands. Ultimately to me, audiobooks are some of our greatest examples of modern day oral storytelling. They harken to the time when all stories were told aloud.  Sure, this was before the written and printed word, but I still believe there is something innate in us that wants to be told a story, aloud and preferably in person. If you can’t go to an actual storytelling event, then I think audiobooks (even podcasts) are great substitutes.

Slow your roll there, lady! That’s a pretty bold statement to say that you listening to Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief before bed is the same as listening to a bard sing Beowulf. I get it. You could argue that oral storytelling is meant to be said aloud and novels are not. Ancient and even modern day storytellers like Carmen Agra Deedy craft stories as if they are conversations; they usually use different tools than those of novelists.

However, I see it as the difference between performance poetry and traditional poetry. Most performance poetry is crafted to be said aloud, but I would argue that even traditional poetry begs to be said aloud. You see it on the page, but when spoken aloud it is more powerful. Sure, it is wonderful to analyze a Whitman poem, really dig into it and see how it works. Yet, when I read Whitman’s poetry aloud, I get something different, sometimes something more from it. It was meant to be analyzed, meant to be pulled apart, but couldn’t I just enjoy it? Couldn’t I just let his words swim through the air and bask in it? Doesn’t that “count” as having experienced the literature? Again, I think it comes back to the idea that the difference between audio and physical books is more about preference and intention than about whether something “counts” or not.

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So let’s look more closely at some arguments for audiobooks. Here are some ways that audiobooks have upped my own reading, and why I prefer audiobooks to physical books sometimes.

  • It allows me to almost always be reading. I can multitask: cook dinner, drive, and even play stupid farm-based games on my kindle and still be retaining a great story. Sure, sometimes I have to rewind the book or go back to the bookmark I made, but ultimately it keeps me from putting the book down and walking away to do something else.
  • I read every word. Normally when I read I unconsciously (sometimes consciously) skim. Especially when the book is a YA read, so at least this way I am able to really hear all the author’s words as she/he intended them.
  • In the long run, it pushes me to finish stories that I normally would put down and perhaps never get back to. It technically takes me longer to listen to an audiobook than if I would read it because I have a fairly fast reading pace. Yet, I am able to push through even the most boring passages to get to some of the more exciting portions by listening to it.
  • I love hearing someone tell me a story. I don’t know if this is a comfort mechanism from childhood, but I love listening to someone read to me before bedtime. Ever want to fall asleep to the sound of Neil Gaiman’s velvety British accent? Of course you have. Every moment of every day you have.
  • Audiobooks drown out my husband’s snoring. Seriously. This is why I started listening to audiobooks in the first place. Sorry, snoogles.
  • When you get a good voice actor, or better yet, the actual author reads the book, you can imagine the novel well and sometimes better than if you were reading it yourself. The inflection and voice you would normally have to interpret in your head is interpreted professionally for you.
  • It offers you unique experiences that you wouldn’t get with other forms of literature. On the audiobook for Yes, Please, Amy Poehler narrates her own book. Her voice, cadence, and timing  truly adds to the hilarity and allows the listener to really hear how the words were intended. However, the truly remarkable portion of the audiobook is the last chapter. She actually reads it aloud live at Second City in Chicago. How cool is that?

So, I know I can’t convince everyone in the literary world that audiobooks count as reading, and are a valid way to consume books, but I hope that this gave you a little bit of a different perspective and continues the conversation.

Lit & Love,

Amy Signature

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