While living and working in Edinburgh in 2008 I set out to write one million words in 366 days... but only managed 800,737.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Audiobooks vs Traditional Books

I’m a big fan of books. I like their weight, texture, smells. I like looking at what other people are reading in the park. I like the feeling of achievement as your bookmark moves through a large tome. I like the covers (which its okay to judge books by, most of the time) and I like bookstores and libraries. If I had to be incarcerated in one building, I would have a hard time choosing between a bookstore, a library… or maybe a basketball gym.

But the thing is, I also like listening to audiobooks.

In practice, these are books on CD which I turn into mp3 files and listen to on my iPod.

I began listening to audiobooks while living in Brisbane. I had a 35-45 minute bus ride every morning and every evening, and very rarely did I get to sit down for the duration of the journey. As such, reading a book was very difficult.

It helped that the Brisbane City Library had a pretty good selection of books on CD, so I could start off listening to things I had wanted to read but hadn’t yet got around to.

It took a while to transfer everything from the CDs onto my iPod the first time (and I guess every subsequent time) and back then I didn’t know if I could actually listen to a book. Could I concentrate on the story while being jostled on the bus? Would having someone else read to me remove too much of the wonder of books: the power to decide what so-and-so sounds like, or even the emphasis on a word-by-word basis? Indeed, listening to an audiobook, you can’t go at your own speed. You can’t skim over a dull patch easily, just as you can’t linger over a marvellous passage.

It seemed the deck was stacked against listening.

But then I actually listened.

Perhaps this is a good time for a list of the books I have listened to over the last two years.

* Everything is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer

* Extremely Close and Incredibly Loud – Jonathan Safran Foer

* The Rotter’s Club – Jonathan Coe

* The Closed Circle – Jonathan Coe

* Motherless Brooklyn – Jonathan Letham (what a lot of Jonathan’s)

* Cocktail Time – P.G. Wodehouse

* Saturday – Ian McEwan

* Dirt Music – Tim Winton

* The Big Over Easy – Jasper Fforde

* Classic Russian Short Stories – Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Chekhov and Turgenev.

* Exit Music – Ian Rankin

* The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami

I have probably left one or two out, but that’s a good enough indication.

I have also listened to the following plays on my iPod:

* Timon of Athens

* The Merry Wives of Windsor

* Loves Labour’s Lost

* Two Gentlemen of Verona

* Measure for Measure

Plays are a bit different, given they were written to be performed. If I stop to think about the difference, I’d actually say that plays feel like they lose more as an audio file than books do, especially if the book has a strong narrator, usually first person. A good narrator, 1st or 3rd person, will always let you know how many people are in a room – an audio file of Shakespeare can’t always do this.

Anyway, I have listened to everything listed above in their entirety. I have attempted to listen to the three books, but failed to complete them. They are:

* Catch 22 – Joseph Heller

* Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

* Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides

The first two I had read before, and loved, but my familiarity meant my mind often drifted off, and eventually, I gave up listening to both. You really need the element of suspense for an audiobook to work.

Middlesex was a technical problem: some of the discs were scratched and so I had to give up.

Of course, over the same period of time, I have still read books – that is, held physical books in my hands and used my eyes to send images to my brain.

Physical books still win in a leisure situation: bedtime reading, lazy Sunday afternoon reading, etc.

But during the daily commute, be it by bus or foot, the iPod is the undisputed king of literature dissemination.

Only recently, when my temp job turned out to be 90% filing, did I start listening to books at work. It only works when doing mindless, repetitive tasks, but…

*Hold on, just remembered another book: The Life of Pi by Yann Martel.*

Okay, where was I? Yes, listening to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle at work helped me finish what would have taken several months of commutes in only two weeks. (At 21 discs, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is the longest book I have listened to so far.)

There are some problems with listening to books.

First: supply. The selection of audiobooks is much narrower than paper ones. Most new books these days are coming out with an audio version (often a few months later), but they cost a fortune. So, if you’re like me, you only get to choose from whatever your local library has on offer. As I said, Brisbane was pretty good. Wellington and Palmerston North in NZ weren’t so great. Edinburgh’s selection is okay. Quantity is pretty good, but the quality’s a bit iffy.

Picking up on my fears before diving into the world of audiobooks, I find it a breeze to concentrate on, and absorb, the story, so long as I don’t know what’s coming next.

*Hold on, remembered another one: Notes on a Scandal­ – Zoe Heller (Watched the film after hearing the book, it was the worst book-to-film experience of my life…).*

Some of the narrators take a bit of getting used to (the over the top Brooklyn accent of the guy who read Motherless Brooklyn for example), but others are absolutely brilliant. Reading an audiobook is a real feat. There’s probably an equivalent of Oscars for audiobooks (note to self to Google: “audiobook awards”). I’d love to be on the academy, though I’d have to go for a lot of walks (or do a lot of filing) to get through all the nominees.

It is true that you can’t skim or savour as you can when actually reading, but it helps that you’re normally listening to the book in half hour bursts in the morning and afternoon. There’s usually enough in any half hour burst to make you want to plug the earbuds back in on the way home.

I feel like my comprehension of a book after listening and reading is actually pretty similar. Maybe listening has 90% the comprehension of reading. The things I struggle to recall when listening are chapter titles, epigraphs etc. Sometimes I get a bit confused which chapter I’m in – a function of listening in 30 minute bursts and not being able to flick back with ease – but this usually works itself out with a bit more listening.

That’s one of the strengths of audiobooks: the relentless pace. There’s no time to get wrapped up in structural nuance. And you’re completely excused from the concerns of line- and page-breaks, typeface, and glued together, torn, stained or missing pages. The narrator just powers on, if you’re with them or not, and most of the time, you’re with them baby.

I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have finished reading Jonathan Coe’s The Rotter’s Club if I was actually reading the book. It took hold of me so incrementally, I only felt bonded to the characters by the very end of the book, by which stage I was glad to learn that the library also had the sequel (The Closed Circle) on CD also.

And I think I might have actually enjoyed Jonathan Safran Foer’s two novels more because I listened to them, than if I had read them. I’m just not sure about all the trickery he layers on top of the stories: the pictures of men falling upwards and tortoises having sex. The stories had enough trickery (perhaps “inventiveness” is a more generous term) without these extras. But, I can’t say for certain. I’ve flicked through the books after listening to them, but this flicking probably exacerbates the kookiness of the type-settings and pictures. I think I’ll read his next book when it comes out, just to see what happens.

I don’t feel like I’m a second class citizen because I listened to these books I’ve listened. In fact, I feel perfectly comfortable engaging in semi-intelligent discussions about books I have only ever listened to. I’ve already done so here (when discussing Ian Rankin).

To prove my point, tomorrow I will write about The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which I only finished listening to today. I promise not to look up anything on the internet to beef up my discussion. (Usually, I would read around before trying to write a review of any sort, but this will be a special case.)

I guess tomorrow’s experiment will be most revealing to those who have read (with their eyes) The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle before, but I really enjoyed the book and will try to convince every one who isn’t familiar with it to should seek it out, in whatever format they please.

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