On audio books

Every once in a while, when I reflect on how small a dent I make in my stack of reading, I think about audio books. I have friends who swear by them. For some of them, it seems, it is the only way they get their fix. There is a great deal of advantage to audio books: you can listen do them while performing other activities, like commuting to work, chores around the house, working out, taking a walk. Indeed, you can make use of those times when reading a book is impractical.

But though I’ve tried on one or two occasions, I cannot bring myself to listen to audio books, particularly fiction in audio book form. There are several reasons for this:

  1. The voice bothers me. I am so used to my own internal voice, and the voices I make up in my head for various characters, that I can’t bear the voice of someone else reading to me. I’ve tried. Even when it is someone whose books I greatly admire, like Isaac Asimov, I’m not able to disappear into the story the way I can when I’m reading from the page.
  2. I cannot divide my attention to make listening and doing something else worthwhile. I will either focus on the story (if I can get past that alien voice in my head) or I will focus on the tasks that I am performing while listening to the story. I can’t do both. This is true for music, too, by the way. If I listen to music while I work, for instance, I will eventually discover that I never heard the music because I was so focused on my work.
  3. Reading aloud tends to be too slow for me. I am by no means a speed-reader, but I do read somewhat faster than the pace of reading aloud. It is just too slow for me and I find myself growing impatient.
  4. For me, reading is an active thing, and finding that groove where the words start to fade away and the scenes flow smoothly through my head is a kind of heaven that I haven’t been able to achieve listening to audio books. To me, audio books come across as performances and I’m not looking to listen to a performance.

That is not to say I have not delighted in audio performances–readings with expression–that were wonderful. I’ve written about my experiences seeing and listening to Harlan Ellison read aloud. Such performances spoil me because I’ve never heard anyone quite as good. But then, those readings really are performances as opposed to someone simply reading a book and perhaps adding a little color through the use of their voice.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because it was not more than a few years ago that I had a similar attitude toward e-book. I could never read an e-book, I thought, because I delighted too much in the feel of the printed page. Well, I learned pretty quickly that, at least for me reading an e-book feels no different than reading off the printed page. And so I wondered if perhaps I wasn’t giving audio books a fair shake for similar reasons.

But after careful consideration, and especially for the reasons I list about, I’ve accepted the fact that audio books are not for me.


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