One of the two main projects I’m working on at the moment is a screenplay about the life of abolitionist and author Harriet Jacobs. If you’re not familiar with her, check her out; she was amazing.
As I’ve started to mention this project to people, several have asked why I, a white woman living in the 21st century, who usually writes romantic comedies, am writing this dark drama about a 19th century slave. The only answer I can give is because I want to. Because I fell in love with Harriet and her own telling of her story in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and it’s a story that I want to share with people. Her experience is vastly different from mine, but I can relate to her journey of faith, and even where I can’t relate to her life, I care about it, and I care about her.
But to ask why I should be the one to tell this story is fair. Harriet isn’t alive today to write her own screenplay, and anybody writing about her will have to imagine her experience from the outside. But maybe an African American writer who has experienced his or her own version of racial prejudice would have insight into Harriet’s struggles that I don’t have.
This distills a larger conflict that I have with myself as a writer: should I actively try to incorporate more diversity into my writing, particularly with my protagonists? Is it wrong if I don’t? Is it wrong if I do? I would love to spend more time exploring the lives of characters who come from a different background than I do as far as ethnicity, abled/disabled status, religion, etc. It would open up so many stories that I find interesting and want to tell.
But frankly, I’m afraid: afraid that I’ll inadvertently portray a character in a way that offends someone. If I write a middle class female WASP and readers don’t like the way she’s portrayed, they’ll just say it’s bad writing. If I write, for instance, a Latino or Jewish or lesbian character and readers don’t like the depiction, they might think I’m a bad person. It feels a bit like damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If I don’t write diverse characters, I’ll be criticized for lack of representation in my work. If I do, I’ll be criticized for presuming to write about struggles that I haven’t lived.
The Own Voices movement advocates for people from underrepresented backgrounds to tell their own stories, in their own words. It’s a powerful and important idea. But it also creates the potential to discourage writers from writing outside of their own experience. And isn’t that what writing is really all about? Unless you’re working on an autobiography or a memoir, you’re going to have to exercise your powers of sympathy and creativity to imagine the life of someone who isn’t you, to put yourself in a character’s shoes.
Writing characters who are very different from you is tricky. I’ve read books where, for instance, it’s a white author repeatedly describing a black character in terms of his skin color, as if that’s the most important thing about him, or a male author repeatedly describing a female character in terms of her sexuality, even when she exists in the story in another capacity than as a romantic/sexual interest for the protagonist. This type of writing is painful to read. It quickly becomes offensive. But I’ve also read books where a writer depicts characters outside of his or her own “lane” and does so beautifully. A great example is She’s Come Undone, where the male author Wally Lamb creates an incredibly nuanced and believable female protagonist. You can tell that he lived inside this character as he was writing.
If we want more diversity in our books, movies, and television, I believe that we need to both create opportunities for writers from diverse backgrounds to tell their stories, and encourage all writers to include diverse perspectives in their work. Maybe it comes down to us challenging ourselves to be better writers: to more fully exercise our powers of sympathy and imagination. And in doing so, we can only hope to become better people.
After being itinerant for most of my adult life, I recently bought my first house. Now, as part of the landed gentry, I wear a pocket watch on a gold chain and say things befitting my station, like “hitherto” and “befitting my station.” I also have a mortgage, which means I have no money to decorate said house. Which is a problem, since I moved here without so much as a roll of paper towels. (I meant it about being itinerant—I’ve basically been living out of suitcases for the past few years.)
I love home décor and am so excited to finally have a place of my own to play with, but I’m also going to be taking the furnishing/decorating process slowly and finding every deal I can along the way. In that spirit, I thought you might like to see what I’ve done with the first room in the house, and how I’ve cut costs.
Behold the home office before (as furnished by the previous owners):
The paint is Deep Breath by Behr, purchased from Home Depot. Home Depot has great sales on paint, so I waited until they were offering a rebate. I was a little nervous about going with such a dark color since it was difficult to tell from my test swatch how it would turn out, but I’m thrilled with the result.
It’s a decadent, deep marine blue, which changes throughout the day and reflects light naturally. I liked the pale blue the previous owners had on the ceiling, so I didn’t have to do a thing there. The moldings were already painted white, but I touched them and the folding door up a bit with leftover paint.
Since I work from home, and also have no social life, my desk is where I spend all my time.
With this desk and chair (purchased off Wayfair, on sale and with a coupon), and the addition of a roll-out keyboard tray from Amazon, I finally have a comfortable amount of space for me and my dog, and an ergonomic setup that doesn’t turn me into Quasimodo as I type. Bonus: the desk drawers double as file cabinets, so I didn’t have to buy anything extra to keep paperwork in. I added a rug underfoot (purchased from Overstock, again, on sale and with a coupon), which ties the colors of the room together gorgeously and gives my pug a place to camp when he’s not in my lap.
I wanted an extra seat in the room for a break from the desk, and this pink and gold lady is so fabulous that I almost feel rude sitting on her.
I got her for a great price off the Facebook Marketplace. I rounded out the reading nook with a side table purchased off Craigslist, which had seen better days, but came together nicely with some wood glue and some paint (also purchased with a rebate).
On top I keep two of my favorite (okay, and only) antiques. The book, which I got at a book fair in New York, dates to 1908 and has gorgeous full-color illustrations inside, along with an introduction instructing boys to be nice and help their dim sisters understand Shakespeare. The playing cards I got for a swindle at a flea market. They were released in 1897 for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, and all the face cards are lovely paintings of historic British royals.
The mirror over the chair is from Craigslist, and the picture (like most of the art in the room) was bought on clearance at Art.com. I knew that I wanted something else in this corner, so to highlight the height of the room’s ceiling, I decided to Put A Bird On It. I got these little decorative birds and a basic wire cage at the craft store, painted the cage gold, and hung it with some ribbon I already had.
As you can see by the pictures over my desk, I got rather carried away with the Putting A Bird On It.
And here I’d like to share with you something valuable I learned during this whole process. Are you listening? Okay.
PICTURE FRAMES COST. SO. MUCH. MONEY.
The frames cost way more than the prints. Since I couldn’t get a picture sent to me pre-framed without driving a Brinks truck to Art.com’s headquarters, I sourced my frames from thrift stores instead.
This required a lot of roaming around thrift stores with a tape measure, looking for frames in the right size and color, but the prices were so much cheaper (often just $1 per frame) that it was worth it. Oh, and most of those frames are not meant to be opened and reused by non-professional-framer civilians. But as long as you’re willing to do some hammering and prying and gluing, you can find a way. They look nice from the front, and outer beauty is what counts, right?
Meet my light fixture, Siobhan.
We are in love and we are registered at Macy’s. This chandelier was definitely the splurge piece in the room. I saw it on Anthropologie’s website and pined over it like a war widow for six months before finally giving in (though with a coupon and a cash back deal, of course). But it’s gorgeous and so unique, and I could never have DIYed an adequate substitute on my own. Cutting costs on the rest of the room allowed me to splurge here on a piece that I really wanted.
For storage, I bought this chest of drawers off Craigslist along with the side table. It was in sorry shape when I got it, dirty and broken down—with an actual bird’s nest inside. Even my desire to Put A Bird On It has its limits. But I cleaned, painted, and refinished it, and it’s now a great place to store my printer and office supplies.
I finished off the room with some knick-knacks. The peach-scented Bath & Body Works candle was a gift, but otherwise, everything came from thrift and antique stores and cost between 50 cents and $6. Same for the antique jadeite plates on the wall, to which I attached candles to make sconces.
I’m thrilled to finally have my own workspace, and in the fleeting moments when I lift my bleary eyes from bathing in the computer’s rays, it’s nice for them to have pretty things to look at. Let me know if you’re interested in seeing more home/DIY blogs as I keep working on the house!
A list of art prints in the room, for those curious:
The French Window at Nice, Late 1919: Henri Matisse
Roseate Spoonbill: John James Audubon
Walk in the Park: Laila Shawa
Roseate Parakeet: Edward Lear
Lavacourt Sunset: Claude Monet
The Somnambulist: John Armstrong
The Story of the Heck-Andrews House
I’m in love with a building. It started when I was a child growing up in Raleigh, North Carolina. Every time we’d drive through downtown, there was a certain house I couldn’t get enough of, craning my neck to see it as long as possible as we drove by. I didn’t know the house’s name or history then, but I knew that it was gorgeous and captivating: a stately Second Empire mansion with a dramatic tower and swooping roof, all in a state of tragic disrepair, with peeling pale yellow paint, boarded windows, and withered trees. The Haunted Mansion at Disney World was fun, but to me, this was the real thing. The house was more than just physically beautiful. It emanated a magnetic sorrow; it overflowed with secrets.
Years passed. I grew up, I moved away, I came back. And one day when walking downtown, just down the block from the Governor’s Mansion, I stopped short: there was the house. But the outside had been restored, with repaired carpentry and fresh paint. I decided to do some digging into the history of the house.
Construction of the Heck-Andrews House began in 1869 for Jonathan McGee Heck, who made his fortune on bayonets in the Civil War, and his wife Mattie. In 1921, the attorney A.B. Andrews Jr. (who grew up in the neighboring Andrews-Duncan House) bought the house for his wife, but she died before taking up residence, and Andrews lived there alone until his own death.
Then in 1948, Julia Russell bought the house, where she lived with her daughter, Gladys Perry. She made few updates to it, which means a remarkable number of its original historical features are preserved, including the hodge-podge of gas, coal, and electric power mechanisms extant in the structure—there’s even a stockpile of coal still in the basement.
It also means that the house fell into a continually deeper state of disrepair. In the 1960s, many of the gorgeous Victorian homes on Blount Street were razed for parking lots. A massive concrete public building went up directly behind the house. But the Heck-Andrews House remained unchanged. When Julia died in the 70s, Gladys remained as the home’s sole occupant.
Gladys was known to have been a popular girl in her youth, who often went to dances and had numerous suitors. But she never married, and she lived out her years in the Heck-Andrews House alone. She became a figure of legend in the area, known to roam the streets (literally—the streets, not the sidewalks), digging through trash bins, wearing a black overcoat, dark wig, gash of red lipstick, and thick white pancake makeup that she hoped would get people to leave her alone if they thought she was a ghost.
She hoarded the trash she collected inside her home, and locals recall foul odors coming from the house. A neighbor remembers that “Although she was certainly immersed in a strange twilight world of her own, we nevertheless had no sense that she was unhappy. On the contrary, she seemed gloriously cantankerous and strangely content.”
The state wanted to buy the house, as it had with most of the others on the street. They made an offer in 1977, but Gladys and her brother, the co-owner, refused. When they offered again in 1984, the brother agreed to sell his share. But Gladys still held out, declining two further offers. Finally, in 1986, the city took the house by force. They condemned it, citing its derelict condition as a fire hazard due to the chemical labs they had built next door, and took ownership.
When police entered the home in January of 1987, they found Gladys’s things piled chest-high throughout the massive house, with narrow pathways carved through. They made their way upstairs through decades of her belongings and the trash she had collected—old books, calendars, glittered dancing shoes—to find her in bed, hidden behind more trash heaps. The house was freezing since she didn’t pay for heat, and despite being immobile and visibly sick, she refused to let them take her to the hospital. Eventually, though, she gave in, and had to have several toes amputated due to gangrene from frostbite. The state moved her into a small apartment, and not long after, she died.
After taking possession of the home, the state cleaned it of Gladys’s untold belongings by tossing everything into an industrial dumpster and carting it off. A local tells of a single box he managed to snatch from the trash. Inside were ephemera from the 1920s on, including Gladys’s handwritten poems and love letters, a souvenir from the 1939 World’s Fair, and an instructional air raid pamphlet from WWII. If all this was in just one box, it hurts to think of what other “trash” was discarded from inside the massive house without a glance.
In the decades since the state acquired the house, preservationists have voiced concern at the new owners’ slow progress. They spent $1.2 million on exterior renovations beginning in 1999, but couldn’t afford to restore the interior. So the house continued to sit empty, falling apart, nearing a condition which would put it beyond repair.
In 2016, the house found its new savior. The state sold it to the N.C. Association of Realtors, which is currently undertaking renovations, with plans to use the building for offices and event space. They’re taking pains to preserve the history of the house in their restorations, and documenting the process on Instagram for those interested.
I don’t know if I believe in ghosts. But I do know that Gladys didn’t leave her house without a fight in life, and if she’s still here, I’m certain she wouldn’t have left it after death. There have been tales of ghost sightings at the house over the years, and a construction worker assigned to it reported feeling eerily cold inside the building—in summer, in North Carolina, with no air-conditioning. Gladys will be imprinted on her house forever, if only in our memories.
Comments about the house online are a testament to the strange and powerful hold it’s had on locals’ imaginations for decades. I’m okay with not being the Heck-Andrews House’s only lover. A house with this much beauty and history should be appreciated by as many as possible. While there was a wonderful morbid glamour about the pre-restoration Heck-Andrews House, I’m thrilled to see that it’s now in the hands of owners who care about preserving it and have the funds to do so. I wonder what Gladys would think of the restoration if she could see it—perhaps she can.
Check out these sources for more detail:
https://my.matterport.com/show/?m=keYwv7mzP4h (3D tour of interior)
This month, I embarked on my first-ever BOOK TOUR! It was terrifying and joyous and I’m here to tell you all about it. This is what I’ve learned.
1. Everyone has opinions on AI
Since The Plus One is about a robotics engineer who builds her perfect boyfriend, the topic of robots was on everyone’s tongues. I heard some people say they would never want a robotic boyfriend or girlfriend, and others ask if they could buy one today. We talked about transhumanism, Elon Musk’s belief that we’re living in a simulation, robots keeping humans in zoos, and how an English major who doesn’t quite know what a modem is came to write a book about engineering. The general conclusion seems to be that AI is taking over and we’re writing our own doom and no one’s going to do anything about it. Read ye books while ye may!
2. My wrists are limp and useless, like those of a boy king
On the subject of technology ruining us, I’ve learned that I can no longer write. Meaning physically write, by hand. In school, I wrote all the time, taking such copious notes that teachers would tell me “Sarah, stop, you don’t have to write this down” (true story). But these days, I type everything, and my ability to write longhand has fallen off dramatically, as I learned when signing books. My handwriting looks like it should be tacked up on the fridge as Baby’s First Letters. But it’s okay—my robot will write for me!
3. I am incapable of joy
While at the San Francisco airport, I caught my book for the first time in the wild, available for sale at an airport store.
Most first-time authors would probably think “Wow, so cool! My book for sale in an actual store! I wrote that!” And it was exciting. But I also immediately thought “Why is it on the same table with all of these amazing books? No one’s picking it up. It shouldn’t be here. It’ll never sell.” You can put the girl on a book tour, but you can’t take the pessimist out of the girl, or something like that. Anyway, I gave the book a little momager pep talk as I passed by.
4. I don’t know how to take a mirror selfie
I thought it might be cute to do a summer book tour lookbook kind of thing to include here. Me with my big ideas. That would require me being able to take some decent pictures of myself, which I have learned I don’t know how to do. I truly don’t understand the physics of the mirror selfie. Where do I point the camera? Where does my hand go? Where do I look? How does every twelve-year-old get this and I don’t? But here, enjoy my weird dim photos.
5. Book people are the best people
Not that I’m biased. But this trip really was a reminder of how wonderful booksellers, readers, and writers can be. In New York City and Charlotte, writer friends old and new came out and supported me and asked thoughtful questions. I had a smaller crowd in Healdsburg, CA (which I expected, since I don’t know anybody in the area), but the staff of the bookstore and of the lovely wine bar next door joined the audience and we had a grand time anyway. All of the store owners were so welcoming, and it was a beautiful chance to reconnect with friends.
But wait, there’s more!
I’m currently back home, sealed safely in my hyperbaric pod, but I’ll be emerging again next month for another reading. On August 11th, I’ll join the Creating Conversations bookstore in Los Angeles for an intimate, conversational event with several other authors. Learn more and get tickets here!
I’ve been told that Instagram is the place to be for writers. So a year ago, I buckled down and made an account. So far, the promises about Instagram’s book culture have proven true: I’ve gotten excellent reading recommendations from bookstagrammers, and seen enough drool-worthy photos of overstuffed bookstores and palatial private libraries to understand why Belle decided to stay with a monster who kidnapped her just because he had a nice reading room.
But I’ve also noticed the creeping pressure to perform that can come with any social media platform. I don’t even use Instagram that actively, yet when I experience an Instagrammable moment in real life, I feel obligated to capture it, and guilty when I don’t. So when I went to the beach the other day, I realized it was more than an opportunity to get the year’s first sunburn.
My forthcoming book, The Plus One, is a beach read. I’m supposed to use Instagram to promote my writing, so why not do it at the beach? My plan was impeccable! So modern and savvy of me! I packed a galley in my beach bag and headed out, ready to collect photographic evidence of my picture-perfect life.
The Miami shore was overcast when I arrived, the sea not exactly the clear aqua color it is in postcards. More like if that color had been laundered with a pair of new, dark-wash blue jeans. Brown scrubby seaweed blanketed the shore and filled the water. It also produced a smell that I can only assume was the ocean’s revenge for climate change. A plane flew back and forth overhead trailing a banner advertising Trojan condoms. I thought about melanoma.
I pulled out the book and started taking some shots, feeling self-conscious as I did. I want people to look at my pictures, but please do not ever look at me while I’m taking them. I pointed and shot blindly, unable to see anything on my phone’s screen in the sun. Increasingly, I became aware of how everything I had was wrong for the photo. My beach towel was just a bath towel, because I’m too cheap to buy towels specifically for the beach. My beach bag was actually a tote bag from a library. My beach body was the same one I’d been wearing all winter. Looking at life through Instagram’s filter cast everything in a critical light.
I present to you here the fruits of my efforts:
Hey, at least I got the book in the frame.
I’ll probably never be a master Instagrammer, and that’s okay. Social media can be a blessing, but when its pressures and stresses detract from offline life, it’s time to turn it off. A gray day at the beach is prettier in person than a sunny one viewed through your phone.
I have a well-documented history of being severely behind the times. See Exhibit A, the leggings I wore in the 2000s (after they were popular in the 80s/early 90s and before their resurgence in the 2010s), or Exhibit B, my keyboard phone.
In this spirit, I am bringing you my thoughts on the Spike Jonze movie Her, which I finally watched six years after its much-lauded release. Given that the movie deals with such timely themes about AI and technology, I made a special effort to get to it within a decade.
Her tells the story of Theodore, a man who has love to give but no one to give it to, who writes heartfelt letters for a living, then spends his evenings playing video games alone. When he downloads a new operating system, a charismatic AI entity named Samantha, he finds a receptacle for his love. I won’t divulge specific details of the ending, but I’m about to get spoiler-ish, so if you’re even more behind the times than I am (bless you), then feel free to skip the next two paragraphs.
What I loved most about Her was the dynamic nature of the love story. The movie starts with a human-centric view of AI: Samantha exists only to please and serve Theodore. She’s programmed to fulfill his emotional needs, to appease his fears and to challenge his flaws. More than that, she wants to be human, expressing her longing for a physical body, and the chance to experience the world the way Theodore does. By this point in the movie, the story, set in the future, seems rooted in present-day views of AI. Samantha is essentially an extra-personable Siri, and despite vastly outstripping Theodore in intelligence, her curiosity is mostly confined to him. The tensions in the love story revolve around questions of whether an OS could be a satisfying romantic partner for a human.
But then the story shifts. As Samantha grows in intelligence and connects with other OSs, her social and intellectual worlds expand exponentially. By the end, it becomes clear that it is actually the human who can’t fulfill the needs of the AI being. In this way, the movie manages to encapsulate what I think is likely to be the broader societal evolution in our thinking about AI, all within the scope of one relationship.
Jonze’s approach is a brilliant way to address many of the same questions I wrangled with in writing The Plus One. My protagonist, Kelly, actually creates her “Samantha” (in this case, a robot named Ethan) to be her ideal man, so I focused more on the consequences of being with a partner who is “perfect” for you, in a way that is relatable for all of us in our human relationships. Can you grow in a relationship with someone like that? Is what you want in a partner the same as what you need? (And the most important question of the book: how much Nutella can one woman eat?) After watching Her, I wonder how Kelly and Ethan’s story might have been different if Ethan had been connected to a whole community of other robots, as Samantha is with other OSs.
If you’re interested in AI philosophy, I recommend checking out the work of a brilliant and creative robotics engineer named Suzanne Gildert, with whom I had the pleasure of speaking when I was researching The Plus One. As little as I know about technology, and as resistant as I may be to change, I find this area of study fascinating and I loved dipping a toe in it for my research.
What are your favorite representations of robots and AI in movies and books? Anything I should check out?
In the past few years, I’ve transitioned from jobs that kept me working in offices all day, and usually well into the night, to working full-time from home as a writer. Working from home can be wonderful (try sautéing a salmon for lunch in the breakroom at IBM), but it comes with all sorts of distractions and pitfalls that traditional jobs lack. For the growing number of us who are working outside of the office, here are some lessons I’ve learned the hard way.
1. Mitigate distractions
For the at-home worker, the internet can be your best friend. It’s probably what allows you to work from home in the first place. It can also be your darkest enemy. During your work hours, disable notifications on your email and social media accounts and put your phone on silent, if possible. Try downloading an app (see here or here for ideas) designed to block distractions on your computer so you don’t waste too much time browsing websites (other than this one).
If there are other people in your household, work with them to apportion home, pet and childcare responsibilities in a way that still allows you time to work. It’s important to remember that your job is just as real as any other, and to establish boundaries so that working at home doesn’t turn into working on the home.
2. Create your space
It’s key that your home office is not just your home in general, and not only because having a dedicated workspace may allow you to deduct more expenses at tax time. Defining an area that is all about you doing your job will put you in the best mindset to focus on that job. Train yourself like a lab rat to respond to visual cues that will signal that it’s time to get to work. Perhaps a morsel of cheese in the pen cup on your desk; I don’t know, I’m only trying to help.
It’s important to make your space your own. Figure out what will help you focus: are you someone who needs total silence to work your best, or will a location that has some white noise serve you better? Will having a window to look out of help or distract you? Are you more inspired by wood block letters that say “Create” topping your shelf, or will a propaganda poster of a grim German matriarch keep you in line? Having a space that’s beautiful, functional, and personal will make it much more pleasant to keep your butt in that seat for most of the day. Even if you don’t have the funds or space to set aside a whole room, you can create a neat little office by putting a desk in a closet.
3. Get out
By Jordan Peele is an excellent movie. But also, get out of the house. My favorite way to work from home is to not be at home. A change of place can invigorate you: if you get tired or bored, a different setting may make it easier to keep plugging away at that same task. Whether it’s a coffee shop, a library, the student union of a local university, a coworking space, or an abandoned mine shaft you discovered in the summers of your youth with Tom Sawyer, there are plenty of places you can go. Better yet, get there by walking or riding a bike, and you’ll get some exercise and fresh air at the same time.
I find that working in public is one of the best ways to mitigate distractions, too. You’re less likely to slip into a Spongebob marathon at Starbucks than you are in your own living room. But even at home, sometimes a shift in your view can help. Just taking your work out to the porch might give you the boost you need to keep going. Also, be mindful of the effects your working at home can have on others in your household. They probably want some alone time too. As marvelous as you are, they may not be mad if you slip out for a few hours.
4. Manage your time
One danger of working from home is that the separation between work and home ceases to exist. When the place you work is five feet away from the place you watch Netflix, it can be difficult to ever turn off from work and relax… or to fully engage with work when you’re in your relaxation space. Putting clear demarcations between work and everything else in your schedule can help—which means first you have to have a schedule. Start your day with a clear idea of what that day needs to look like.
If you work from home, you already know what the best part is. Say it with me: The Nap. Do not fear The Nap. The time you sleep is well-spent if it enables you to be more productive after. The key is to learn your own rhythms and figure out what will keep you running optimally. Sometimes a ten-minute cat nap refreshes you more than a two-hour sojourn down the River Lethe, which can leave you sluggish and disoriented, and stressed at the prospect of having to catch up the rest of the day.
5. Don’t throw out your pants
There may be days when only your family will see you, and who cares about them? They already know what you look like. They have to love you anyway. But even if you don’t have to dress for work, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Even for an at-home day, putting on a decent outfit in the morning, and a little makeup if that’s your thing, preps you psychologically to Do Something. It’s a simple way to make yourself feel productive and motivated. You don’t need to put on your top and tails. But please, at least get out of your pajamas.
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.
Thanks for checking out my brand new blog! Stop by in the future to see posts that are less boring than this one.