By Aaron Grierson
Imagine a play at the theatre, only there’s no stage and it’s essentially a monologue. Yes, the rise of audiobooks is a form of progress, especially from a technological perspective, but it is also a reversion to older elements of culture. There was a time, before literacy was fairly commonplace, when one literate member of a household, typically the eldest child, might spend some evenings reading to the rest of the family, rather the same way you might have had a family games night. We still might have stories shared over campfires, or other dark settings as given to us by cheesy horror flicks. Other than the theatre and other forms of oral entertainment (if you find orations or public executions captivating), the next major advancement in the oral sharing of stories would be radio broadcasts and dramatizations, which held great popularity in the early to mid-twentieth century, where a family would crowd around these large wooden boxes and listen to voices, sometimes voices even coming from overseas, creating stories of wonder, awe, and sometimes very real horror, as was the case with the presentation of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds in 1938, which was presented as live news feed of real time events, resulting in widespread hysteria.
Since the inception of literature there have not only been shifts in the content of written words, but also the materials used. The reasons behind one’s inclination to take up the pen and craft careful blows into timeless doctrine or the stuff of legend are likely the only element of writing that has not changed.
Even in the last twenty years, the last decade, reading has twisted, and writhed, and turned into an altogether different leviathan. It has changed so much that our grandparents might not even recognize the quips of old allies, the memorable if somewhat corny villains and the familiar schematized formulae that make an enjoyable story.
Audiobooks, by contrast, do not necessarily bring a family together. In fact, they may bolster the technologically driven isolation, the user being transported aurally to their own fantasy land. Many of us may have felt, and still may feel, locked away when we engage with a good book, but quite simply, people are less likely to disturb you if you have headphones in, unless they are begging for change or attempting to sell you something. Of course, audiobooks seem like they would be a huge boon for visually impaired individuals, providing a completely different experience than braille. In addition to the physical ways audiobooks immerse a ‘reader’ differently than a paperback, there are more cerebral ones as well.
For example, the narrator, typically the voice in our own head, imagined or otherwise, is given their own distinct voice which can impact the way we engage with the text. One meme that has gained some popularity in recent years is the obsession with Morgan Freeman, and the number of worldly, wildlife movies he has narrated. Imagine your favourite book as narrated by him. For many, it might be an enjoyable experience, soothing to the point of a lullaby. Not so bad, right?
Now imagine that you’re trying to multitask, perhaps reading up on the daily news or running on a treadmill, listening to someone talk a story at you. I’ve always wondered how such distraction affects the amount a person engages with the book, the amount of detail they will remember upon completion. Reading it yourself necessitates a fairly high degree of engagement if you’re trying to actually read the book. If you’re trying to skim through it, audiobooks might be the way for you to go. The same way half-sleeping through a lecture might be.
Of course, this might not always work, pending who exactly is doing the narration. For most people, I imagine most stock voice actors that do these recordings probably suit well enough, being unmemorable themselves but still managing to make the story worthwhile. Then there’s Gilbert Gottfreid narrating 50 Shades of Grey. That’s right. Iago is talking poorly written erotica at you. I think at the present time the only bigger joke in literature is that “it’s still a better love story than Twilight.” I’d consider paying for this audiobook, as it might actually make the story entertaining in some way. He is an excellent example as to why for audiobooks, the narrator’s voice is of paramount importance. To take something meant to tread across lines of taboo, and attempt to be genuinely erotic while doing so and turn it into a joke is perhaps the spoken equivalent to an anti-climax. But there is a wide spectrum between Iago and a man who once literally played the voice of God. Someone like Benedict Cumberbatch, for example, might bring a serious tone and a sense of sophistication if he were to narrate an audiobook.
So what of some of the detriments that I have hinted at? Well, as I mentioned, audiobooks increase social isolation; not that many people would notice. We’re all so jacked in I wonder how many other individuals feel we’re living in the Matrix. The genre has also, to my dismay at least, picked away at the publication levels of hard copies of books. In a way, this is like cutting a plant away from its roots. The feel of paper, the sole reason many people have not switched away from hard copies of books, in some meaningful way connects the reader to the author, sharing the same medium, distilled through mass production. In the Digital Age too, paper is sliding increasingly towards a nostalgic photograph of a memory, hashtagged away to the bottom of the box. I cannot decide whether the paper is an anchor or a weight for the mind.
My heart says it is an anchor, a portal through which people can enter endless lands of adventure, but that part of me lodged in the train of modernity is acutely aware of how a physical portal can have its limitations, where audiobooks have a much less solid anchor, dialling directly into our brains by way of our ears. Perhaps the paper is where the spirit of the author, the body and the physical end, and the audio is where the purely psychological begins. Granted that audiobooks have been overshadowed by ebooks, an altogether different beast which has risen to nigh horrifying levels of popularity, but at least they are keeping people reading. Ebooks still maintain that physical element, but in the same way a plastic wrapped piece of plywood is meant to mimic the smooth, earthen touch of hardwood. Synthetic, cold and unfeeling while a book has texture, warmth and the distinct aura of man working with nature to transform the beautiful. “But wait,” a passerby jogging in the midst of a Canadian winter, might object, “I can’t watch where I’m going if I’m reading!” To which I can only reply “Certainly not very well.”
Silly hypothetical situations aside (especially since it’s no longer winter in most of Canada [I swear!]), such an objection is a sensibly valid one. And it’s an excellent point that in this world, where so many of us are rushing every which way we’re going, that we can still absorb literature of our age (or available in it), whilst scurrying about cursing Father Time for not cramming more hours in a day. Not that this stops many people, be they reading a book or checking their social media feeds, from walking down the middle of the street with their eyes fixed firmly downward in an unnatural posture.
Who is to say, though, that audiobooks have to be all for play? While the standard university textbook probably hasn’t been narrated and recorded before, it has been depicted in film that introductory (at least) material to foreign languages has been recorded. And this makes more sense than reading a textbook or a how-to guide online, as it provides the user with necessary auditory details, such as the pronunciation of basic phonemes. Of course, I do not mean to make the argument that a language can be learned strictly from a book, regardless of its format. It would be foolish to not get direction from a teacher, be they a professor or native speaker that you work with.
Consensus has it that art makes up a substantial portion of a culture, an ever-flowing lifeblood we should never staunch. After all, there are few things finer than the pressed-pulp feel of a page pulsating with ideas in the palm of your hand.
Aaron Grierson is Senior Articles Editor for the magazine.