Audiobooks: What’s the point?

JANUARY 30 — Today, book nerds can disguise themselves as music junkies – because it is possible for one to enjoy a book with just a pair of earphones plugged in to any device with Internet connectivity.

Instead of reading physical books, lovers of narratives now have the option of listening to audiobooks, which feature narrators reading stories out loud with changing intonations accompanied by sound effects, bringing certain scenes to life.

I find it both odd and admirable how we keep finding new ways to go about doing things, more often than not, in the name of practicality. When listening to an audiobook, it seems that the brain does not have to work too hard reading the book word by word or imagining its plot.

I personally get updates about freshly published books from BookTubers‘ (people who talk about books on YouTube) videos and recently came across one which praises the well executed narration of the audiobook version of The Martian, a novel by Andy Weir now popular through its movie adaptation. Having repressed my curiosity on the effectiveness of stories being told orally and having craved reading The Martian for quite some time, I immediately gave it a go.

I have a habit of listening to just about anything informative while cooking. At least, something will entertain my mind while my physical body is occupied – be it podcasts, lectures or the news. 

That very evening, I knew I had a new listening experiment to conduct and indeed, the first month-free offer on Audible.com couldn’t have been more accommodating. With earphones plugged into my ears and the book downloaded into my phone, I pressed the play button and started getting busy in the kitchen.

The plot of the story was fairly easy to follow but with the story being about an expedition to planet Mars, there were reasonably many scientific and astronomical jargon which required focus, both to listen and to understand. I remember several times when I had to stop and rewind at least a minute of the narration when I had some problems with the blender or when I took some moments to think of what to get from the refrigerator.

These were moments when my concentration shifted to attend to kitchen issues while the narrator just went on with his reading. My ears registered every word but my brain did not process them. Regardless, I finished listening to five chapters by the time the meal was done and had a good laugh throughout simply because the story was hilarious!

So what does my first audiobook experience tell me about this major conversion we have done to books?

Listening to audiobooks is definitely a good option for a multi-tasker – but only when our main task at hand does not demand high-level concentration. For instance, gardening while listening to a book being read to you is ideal but the average mind is not meant to excel when engaging in the arduous task of driving in a busy city while listening to information that requires thorough deciphering.

The quality of the narration matters too. I had a good time with The Martian mostly because the narrator exhibited skills that made the story come to life – apt intonation, easy to follow reading pace and a charm that makes comical lines actually sound funny!

However, I remain curious about the motives of the audiobook – an invention that alters the social norm of engaging with a book through the act of reading and not listening. Why break the basic rule of a written book?

I personally think that it is the modern obsession with productivity that has led to the invention of audiobooks. We want to squeeze in as much as possible in our 24 hours to be “better people” by finding means to nurture the brain and very often, we resort to technology to generate a solution. I guess there is a lot to catch up on with easily accessible information these days and humans just find better ways to go about this.

A personal proof would be my ownership and utilisation of a Kindle, a tab-like device that enables e-books purchasing, storing and reading. Life as an English Literature student with a tall pile of reading materials is made easy with this device. I can extend my reading hours in bed after the lights are switched off at night and save myself from the heavy weight of a book, strained eyes and a panic attack for being unprepared for class the next day. Twenty Kindle pages every night already means productivity to me.

Despite that, it is amusing how modernisation is sometimes a renewed moment in the timeline of history. With audiobooks, we ironically reverse back to ancient times when stories were told by words of mouth, which is in fact the original vehicle of stories. We seem to be reverting to the verbal approach of presenting stories, something that hopefully will shape us into becoming good and wise listeners again.

Audiobooks could be the start of a renaissance for the oral tradition of storytelling, giving us the chance to use narratives as tools to bring our modern communities closer. After all, stories have always been a wonderful therapy we share with good friends. The time has come again for us to excite our imaginations and tell fictional stories to our loved ones.

* Amalina is an Associate Editor of CEKU, the editorial arm of the United Kingdom and Eire Council of Malaysian Students (UKEC).

** This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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