The Problem With Audiobooks
August 29, 2020
Earphones The Problem with Audiobooks Ranjani Rao

The discovery of audiobooks came as an unexpectedly pleasant surprise during the otherwise dull days of being sequestered at home due to Covid. Working from home meant hours of sitting in front of a screen and left me with no inclination to curl up with a book before bedtime. 

But I missed my daily reading ritual.

When the Singapore library system announced that it was adding more ebooks and audiobooks to its already massive collection, I was curious.

I first listened to a non-fiction essay collection and followed that with a couple of novels; Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, translated from Korean into English and The Dutch House, by prolific American novelist Ann Patchett. The former was unsettling because of its theme, which despite depicting a different culture from my own, hit too close to home. The latter, a rare story of love between siblings, was made more enjoyable by the narration by charismatic actor, Tom Hanks. 

Although I am hooked to this alternate option of consuming literature and have listened to short story collections, memoirs, and other genre-crossing books, I have found one major problem. Audiobooks are not the best format for doing book reviews.

I love writing book reviews. Not the 100-word kind that people write on Amazon or Goodreads,but in-depth opinions that refer back to memorable lines from the book and build context with regard to other books that I have read or have been influenced by.

Books that I have savored are most likely to be found with tens of post-it notes sticking out from various pages that I hope to go back and read again. For books that I own, I tend to fold the corner of significant pages. But I hate to mess with library books and therefore the investment in post-its. 

Whether I am devouring Elif Shafak’s Black Milk: On Motherhood and Writing, or skimming through the breezy love story of The Stationery Shop of Tehran, I pore over the pages like a diligent student studying for an exam before I begin writing my review. Sometimes I re-read portions. At other times, I make notes in a book or loose sheets of paper. Occasionally I give up altogether and return to it when I feel compelled to write.  

I can do all that only when I have the book in my hand. The joys of holding a physical book are multiplied because they offer a means to transform ideas into a deeper understanding of the subject. Tactile memory helps us remember things. 

A book is more than just a collection of words and stories,

it is a conduit that brings us the tastes and smells of faraway places; a vehicle that transports us to other lands and eras. 

Enjoyment of audiobooks is heavily dependent on the narrator and can sometimes seem like a disembodied voice in your ear. I have often gone back and listened to a particularly beautiful line but because I listen to these books on my daily walks, I seldom have pen and paper on hand to write them down. 

Ebooks make for easy reading on a bus or train, but I find them more suitable for short form pieces, like essays or daily news stories. I don’t particularly enjoy reading ebooks on a flat screen, although graphic novel readers may beg to differ.

Audiobooks, unlike ebooks, are expensive to produce, and a reader’s opinion depends greatly on the production quality. Some authors read their own work, which creates a sense of intimacy with readers, an experience they can experience on demand. But what if an author is not the best person to read his/her work? 

Don’t judge a book by its movie, is a common refrain.

Perhaps it would be fair to add, don’t judge a book by its audio performance.

It isn’t enough for authors to go away and write in solitude anymore. They have to create a public persona, grow an author platform and be available to connect with readers. And now audiobooks demand that they master the art of narration as well! 

While I understand the difficulty of producing every book in audio format, I can see why they are gaining popularity. Despite my complaint that they do not lend themselves to book reviews easily, I find myself trying out an audiobook through the library system to check whether it interests me sufficiently to go check it out physically.

I get to enjoy such books twice, like a double serving of my favorite icecream. What could be better for a bookworm?

Have you tried audiobooks? What has your experience been like? Please share your recommendations.

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