How do you get on with audiobooks? Are you into them? Do they work for you? And most importantly, do you count them as a book?
I was never much of an audiobook guy – but I guess podcasts won me over. The fact that I’d walk around town with my headphones in (or on – depending on which model I used on the day) listening to a voice or voices meant that, one day, I could (quite easily) make the change.
The person that helped with that change was Jon Ronson. I’m such a fan of his work and thanks to knowing his documentaries and radio-shows I was already attuned to his voice. His voice is very important. I hear his voice when I read his work. He has a ‘voice’ for the page as writers do – but when I’m reading his words that’s his actual voice in my head, or my memory of it at least. I hear it. I hear it – thanks to things like his brilliant head-to-head battle with Malcolm Gladwell. Spoiler Alert: Ronson wins!
So, when I couldn’t get hold of Ronson’s then-new book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (I needed it the day it was released you understand!) I turned to the audiobook. That was my first proper attempt at being an audiobook appreciator. It worked out well, and the roughly eight hours of book-read flew by in a couple of long sessions.
Since then I’ve been back a few times – to Audible, to the library for old-fashioned books-on-tape (well, CD!) and to various digital formats and via all sorts of platforms. Some generous sneaks upload whole audiobooks to YouTube. You can find some on Spotify. There’s a podcast that uploads old classics as audiobooks.
To begin with, my rule was the book needed to be read by the person that wrote it – I had to have their voice in my ears. That changed when I found Sean Penn reading Bob Dylan’s memoir. Dylan himself would have been amazing – his radio show (Theme Time Radio Hour) is one of the finest things he’s ever done, but he didn’t ever read a version of his memoir. Sean Penn did. And that was cool to hear.
For the most part, I still prefer the actual author to be the reader. And I’m not big on having a cast of readers performing characters – but that’s because I’m really a non-fiction person when it comes to audiobooks.
But I have started to step out (with my headphones on). I have started a few books from various genres with various readers – or memoirs read by a voice-actor rather than the person that wrote the original text.
And it’s been okay. Sometimes it’s been fantastic.
I’ve even started adding them to my Goodreads page. Listening to a book all the way through isn’t cheating. It’s just a different experience. It counts though. It is processing the words and taking in the story and it is – in a way, its own way – reading.
That’s my feeling. But I know some people feel like audiobooks are a cheat; feel like reading requires the turning of a page. We read in so many different ways now – and often on screens. So I don’t think you get to list every website you visit as a book, but in the same way that reading comics is still reading, I think listening to audiobooks is also still reading.
In lockdown I even experimented with co-reading/listening. I was working on a radio feature about Tori Amos and the timing was such that her memoir (Resistance: A Songwriter’s Story of Hope, Change and Courage) had just been released. So it was not only essential research it was part of the motivation for the talk. I wanted to process the book as quickly as possible and the audio version made the most sense. Plus it was a handy motivator for lockdown walks. (I recorded the most steps ever on my Fitbit in one day, nearly 40,000, due to my near addiction to hearing Tori Amos tell her story). But I also read the book. I would come home and “re-read” by revisiting a chapter on my Kindle. I’m glad I read this book twice-at-the-same-time. It made sense to me anyway. The book features whole lyrics, there as chapter starters or punctuators – and I just can’t imagine another reading getting the line-readings as perfect as Tori. In a way it was like a series of little poetry readings in the middle of a memoir. (Good book too – by the way. Recommended. My review of it is in the link back up there).
A friend told me, a while back, that audiobooks don’t count. But I disagree. Anything counts. And besides, it’s not a competition. I don’t read for sport. I read for knowledge. For relaxation. For research. I read to learn and take on different styles, different points of view, different ways of looking at the world. Audiobooks allow you to ‘read’ when you might otherwise not be able to. I recently took a five-hour drive and completed a book in that time, courtesy of the car-stereo. Just me at the wheel and the book unfolding as the car negotiated the hills. It was a great use of time – and the voice felt like a friend.
And what about if the audiobook is the only format. James Taylor’s mini memoir (Break Shot – My First 21 Years) is currently only available as an audiobook exclusive. It is only 90 minutes and features songs and incidental music by James – and of course it’s Taylor reading. It tells you his life up until his first real brush with fame. At 21 he is signed to Apple and hanging with The Beatles. It is one of the best books I’ve ever heard. Another lockdown vibe for me was to head down to the basketball court and shoot hoops listening to this. I played it through four times over a few weeks. Hypnotic. A storytelling thrill-ride. The best book on or about Taylor I’ve read. And I technically didn’t read it.
Jon Ronson seems to have moved almost exclusively into making limited podcast series’ (see here and here) now – basically mini audiobooks. They are riveting. I want transcripts of them. I wish they were books too – but I revisit them as podcasts because that is how they exist. That is the medium. To me his recent podcasts are as good – and as important – as his earliest and best books.