Audiobooks Are Books and They’re Also Practice
Speak low if you speak love.
— Shakespeare, Much Ado about Nothing
I’m very fond of audiobooks. There is something endearing, maybe even romantic, about the act of listening. I get this same sense often in early photographs of radio listeners, that they appreciate the romance of the medium. Today our options are so much more, we possess a pocket oration of the world’s greatest texts if we want them. And that is so compelling that I’m always a little shocked when people malign audiobooks. I think they are typically snubbed because the act of putting on an audiobook feels almost too easy. And maybe it is too easy, in the sense that it is easy to press play and listen without giving it the proper attention.
My fondness may also come from the fact that I tend to read very slowly. Often I practically read to myself with a voice in my head. This I hope comes as no surprise: I think very slowly too. I circle around to things. Audiobook pacing is beneficial to me but I think it might be beneficial to everyone, if you want to really understand what you’re reading.
Listening is a skill. One you should take seriously and one that might have atrophied in recent times. I can’t prove this change, though I think we can infer it a little from changes in media — for instance movie scenes, cuts, and dialogue have all been shortened over the decades. Generally the pacing of nearly all media has quickened. Possibly the delivery of “more, faster” is the result of a too-great respect for novelty as an artistic flourish. I think these changes, and maybe others I can’t see, affect how people choose to make conversation in their daily lives, and make it shorter and faster too.
It becomes harder to practice listening as conversation takes on these shorter expectations, in terms of the back-and-forth. It becomes difficult to say much that’s meaningful or long. But you can practice this. You can practice it by trying to draw out someone in conversation, to give more than just pauses between your own sentences, to ask for the whole story. Above all you can respect the pause. This is difficult to do in groups, where anyone rushes to fill any gaps. But it's quite possible with two people to make the threads much longer. It’s especially easy if you are doing something together, such as walking, or working on something.1
And you can practice this lengthening by listening to audiobooks. If you find audiobooks hard to follow, this is all the more reason to want to practice. After all: How long did it take you to learn to read well? Keeping the thread of an uninterrupted narrative, holding your concentration and attention for it against all the other forces, this is a muscle worth stretching. You might find that over time you get better at it, you absorb much more, and it will make you a better listener elsewhere, too. If you try to listen to them on 1.5x speed you are absolutely going the wrong way.
If you have tried listening to audiobooks before but find it’s hard to pay attention, I recommend you start only with re-reading. It is hard to convince people of this but I am sure it’s true: Re-reading is often much more rewarding than reading for the first time. Still, most people have an aversion to picking up a book they’ve read before. Audiobooks however make a natural entry point for re-reading your favorite books. If you cannot guarantee perfect attention when listening to audiobooks, then using them for re-reading is simply a kind of leafing-through. Even if you zone out often, you will still gain a good deal from the retelling.
A few of my favorite audiobooks
I have listened to a number, most of them quite long and probably not for everyone. So here are just a few that I think might have broader appeal that come to mind right now. If I have time to give this more thought, I’ll make a much more complete list later to maintain.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Simon Armitage translation), Narrated by Bill Wallis. Truly exceptional narration of the famous story that I think is more appropriate to listen to than to read. Quite short, and contains both a reading of the translation and a reading in the original 14th century Middle English.
The Odyssey (Homer, Fagles translation), Narrated by Ian McKellen. Superb retelling of the oral epic. Unfortunately the production quality is poor (recorded in 1999), but Ian McKellen makes it worthwhile still, so it remains my favorite.
Heretics (G. K. Chesterton), Narrated by Philippe Duquenoy. A series of moral essays. I actually find this particular book slightly easier to listen to than to read, though it helps that Duquenoy is an excellent narrator.
Anna Karenina (Tolstoy), Narrated by Maggie Gyllenhaal. Lovely performance despite not being my favorite translation. It’s long, but I’m so fond of it I’ve listened to it twice. In my opinion the most approachable and the best of the classic Russian novels.
The Measure of Her Powers: An M. F. K. Fisher Reader (M. F. K. Fisher), Narrated by Carolyn Cook. Essays from the greatest food writer of all time, narrated by someone who deeply enjoys the work. Very lovely and low-stress listen.
Right Ho, Jeeves (P. G. Wodehouse), Narrated by Jonathan Cecil. Short, funny, enjoyable if only for the lexical range and truly ridiculous use of English. This is technically book 6 of the series but possibly the best, and you don’t need to read the others to enjoy it.
Napoleon: A Life (Andrew Roberts), Narrated by John Lee. The best Napoleon biography with an excellent narrator.
Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination (Neal Gabler), Narrated by Arthur Morey. A compelling biography just to remember what the recent past was like, how many things had to be invented to get animation off the ground, and how immense effort can create something truly exceptional. The whole book is good (I have listened to it twice), though you could also stop the book after the production of Snow White and have it stand as a compelling work on its own.
Surely I forget a dozen better books for would-be romantics of the audiobook format, but I must sleep of them for now. Good night.
~ ~ ~
The photograph of radio listeners I found in the Library of Congress archives, dated 1928, a gift from the Red Cross archives.
Reading Well — I mention audiobooks in this too, though it is about reading more generally
The Hidden Storehouse — Giving more attention to Language
Obliquely related: Quiet Listening
“A too-great respect for novelty as an artistic flourish” — for some thoughts on novelty in art see: Sketches of Beauty
As always the best way to make relationships is to do work together. All kinds of relationships, all kinds of work.