The Case Against Audio Books

(Reposted from a previous blog)

Audio books are making great strides in popularity, which is rather understandable given the advances in audio recording and playback technology. Philip Pullman, author of the book trilogy “His Dark Materials,” has publicly praised audio books. I heard Pullman in an interview recently, quite correctly commenting that oral storytelling had long predated the written word. He sees in audio books the return to the era when communities gathered around the fire and listened to the tales of the traveling bard. Would that it were so.

Personally I would rejoice at the image of the family gathered together in the living room, with a fire in the fireplace, listening to Chaucer, or Hemingway, or even Danielle Steele or Tom Clancy. I see no evidence of this taking place anywhere, though. What I see are people using audio books to multitask. They “read” while they’re doing housework, or cooking dinner, or commuting to and from work, or diving cross-country. And this is absolutely fine except I don’t really call that reading.

Until now, printed books were the only media that couldn’t be easily relegated to the background. People will buy expensive pieces of art and display them in their homes without ever actually examining that art. They appreciate it only for the subtle effect of its presence. It’s a “nice touch.” Visual media is even more just simply background. It’s a distraction for when we’re not too busy. The television is on because, well, people are home and the tv is supposed to be on. They talk over it and generally ignore it, unless there is something specific coming up, and even then they only give it half attention. I have a friend who was genuinely excited because I had acquired a video she had never seen, so we set a time to watch it together. She spent half the time diddling away on her tablet.

And as for music, well, the vast majority of music is created specifically to be background noise.

But books were different. Books have very little background value beyond impressing people from a shelf or coffee table. But even that value is limited. With a picture on the wall, even if you never give it any real attention you might get a little out of it after you’ve walked past it often enough. With a book, all you get is the author and title- unless you actually open it up. And even then, you have to give it real attention, or else all you are doing is staring at what might as well be blank pages. If you’ve ever tried to read a book on a plane while the person in the seat next to you is determined to carry on a conversation with you, you know this is true. The book might well have been the last object in the universe that you couldn’t get any value out of unless you gave it your complete attention. Until now.

Now, you don’t have to pay attention. Now you can get an audio book and “read” it while your mind is on something else completely- or usually several other things. You can be as well-read as any of those obnoxious, conceited academics without having to put any effort at all into it. Thanks to the audio book.