I’m grateful that I grew up without the internet. It wasn’t a daily part of my life until I was in middle school, so for those first formative years, before Twitter reduced my attention span to the duration of a sneeze, I actually read books. I remember long Saturdays and summer Mondays spent digesting Roald Dahl and Louisa May Alcott, with no distractions except my leg going to sleep and prompting me to flop over onto my stomach on the couch.
Perhaps it’s these memories that have engendered in me a deep, “get off my lawn” suspicion toward audiobooks. There’s much hubbub around audiobooks these days, and with good reason: they’re the fastest growing segment in digital publishing, sustaining double digit growth over the past six years. As someone who writes and who reads, I should embrace any positive trend in publishing. But I’ve questioned if audiobooks are all positive. My assumption is that a large part of the format’s popularity comes from its multitasking-friendliness, and the numbers bear this out. The number one reason audiobook listeners cite for preferring to hear their books is that they can do other things while listening, with traveling, doing housework, baking, crafting, and exercising ranking among the top co-reading activities. So does that mean that audiobook readers are worse readers? Are they distracted, missing out on the full experience? Traditional reading is a uniquely consuming process, requiring the uninterrupted attention of your eyes and hands. With our eyes and hands allowed to wander, aren’t our brains going to follow suit?
And while we’re at it, what about the concern that audiobooks privilege more established authors since their books are most likely to be available in audio format, meaning that people who already get the most reads will take up a larger and larger share of the market? Or the concern that a narrator’s delivery will limit the scope of a reader’s imaginative possibilities? Or that his dictation of pace will hinder comprehension?
Thinking about this got me all worked up (another skill Twitter taught me). But I decided to play fair and consider the possible benefits of audiobook consumption. Of course, audiobooks offer accessibility advantages for readers with visual or learning impairments. Also, a little research told me that most audiobook users in the U.S. are between 18 and 44, which bodes well for the future of the medium. And as tethered as we are to our screens, anything that can give our eyes a break is worth a shot (I say while staring at my computer, my eyeballs trying to weep at the irony, yet no longer able to produce any natural tears). Maybe most importantly, audiobooks have been proven to encourage reading: they can be a gateway to books for non-readers, particularly podcast listeners, and according to the Audiobook Publishers Association, those who already read agree that the option to listen helps them finish more books.
Perhaps what surprised me most in my research was a study by University College London that compared the reactions generated by listening to a scene and watching it. Study participants registered higher levels of emotional engagement, according to physiological markers, when listening to the audiobook version of a scene than when they watched the filmed version of the same scene. Funnily enough, the participants expected their own engagement to be higher in the TV and film portion of the test: maybe they shared my preconceptions about visual versus auditory consumption. While I’d love to see a similar study comparing listening to audiobooks and reading pages, the data at least indicates that audiobook reading does significantly activate the emotions and imagination.
As I reflect on our collective reading habits, I realize that though I prefer paper books, I almost never just sit and read these days anyway. I’m a multitasker too: I read in waiting rooms, on trains, at the breakfast table and on the elliptical machine. So maybe “distracted reading” is less of a peril of the audiobook and more of an inevitability of modern life. And maybe I should stop asking “But are you reading CLOSELY????” and just be happy that people are reading. After all, our earliest forms of storytelling were oral. If it was good enough for Homer, it’s good enough for me.