Listened to any good books lately?
If you have, you’re in good company. Listening to books, rather than reading them, is increasingly popular. This summer the Audio Publisher’s Association reported that in 2020 audiobook revenue rose to $1.3 billion, a 12% increase that marks the ninth consecutive year of double-digit growth.
The association says that 71,000 audiobooks were produced in the U.S. last year, a 39% increase over 2019. This year 46% of respondents reported choosing to listen to a book, rather than read it.
But as popular as audiobooks are, they haven’t entirely shed the stigma that traditional book readers sometimes attach to them. Is listening to a book as good as reading it? Or are audiobooks just an easy workaround for people who don’t have the energy to grapple with a printed text?
And can you claim to have read a book if you’ve only listened to it? New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo contends that this is a “silly” question, similar to: Can you claim to have been to a city if you’ve only flown through its airport?
In fact, in a recent column — “When Listening to a Book Is Better Than Reading It” — Manjoo takes on “a certain kind of literary snob,” contending that “Listening to a book is not only just as good as reading. Sometimes, perhaps even often, it’s better.”
Manjoo makes a convincing case. He argues that some books’ narrators are so skilled that they “could make the Federal Register sound compelling.” Some narrators’ voices are so rich in tone and agile in cadence that they enhance the text in ways lost on the traditional reader who hears the story only through the voice in her own head.
Some genres, such as memoir, are particularly suited to reading aloud. Manjoo cites Matthew McConaughey’s “Greenlights,” which as text, he says, can be “discursive and sometimes indulgent,” but as audio McConaughey’s “strange and irresistible staccato speaking style” conveys emotion missed by a traditional reader.
Banish the guilt
Manjoo also reminds us that for most of humanity’s history stories were told aloud, long before we learned to write them down and read them. His advice: “Banish any guilt you might harbor about listening instead of reading.”
This is reasonable advice. Still, as a reader who has not transitioned to audiobooks, I have two misgivings that are probably related to each other.
The first is that people who listen to audiobooks are nearly always doing something else at the same time. As a rule, that’s precisely the point.
Manjoo concedes that audiobooks are “often consumed while multitasking.” I suspect that “always” is closer to the mark than “often.” Manjoo admits that he enjoys “few greater pleasures than cooking while listening to a book.”
We used to talk a lot about multitasking, but not so much since, at some point, experts generally concluded that multitasking is a myth. M.I.T. neuroscientist Earl Miller put it this way in 2008: “People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves. The brain is very good at deluding itself.”
Unless you’re just microwaving a TV dinner, cooking is an art in its own right that calls for and rewards careful attention. So do good books.