Why I'm Bananas About Audiobooks
Updated: Sep 12
For some reason there’s a lot of controversy around audiobooks. Some people love them, some people don’t, and somehow this all adds up to a big, dramatic fuss.
I don’t really understand it.
After all, some people love bananas, while other people (me) can’t even take a bite of a banana without becoming really quite impressively sick. Some people enjoy the music of pioneering electronic band Kraftwerk, and others (still me) really aren’t that keen. But nobody kicks up a fuss about this. Nobody films serious BBC2 discussion programmes about bananas, or claims that battle lines are being drawn over Trans-Europe Express*. Or maybe they do, and I haven’t been paying attention. The point is that if someone posted a Twitter poll asking whether bananas were valid, it wouldn’t get much in the way of answers. Indeed nobody would post a Twitter poll asking whether bananas were valid, because it is such a mind-bogglingly stupid question. Actually. Hold on.
Ok, so one person (yes, still me) has posted a Twitter poll asking whether bananas are valid, but she did it with nonsense aforethought, so it doesn’t really count. I’ll probably regret it in the morning. Anyway, what people mean when they post polls or host discussion panels asking “Are audiobooks valid**” is “Are audiobooks a valid form of book?” Or possibly: “Is listening to an audiobook a valid way to ‘read’ that book?” And the answer is yes. To both questions. No, I don’t intend to debate it because, apart from anything else, I’m far too sure that they are valid books to be able to simulate anything even remotely like a fair and even-handed discussion.
Instead I’m just going to list all the reasons*** I love audiobooks, and you can make up your own mind. If you haven’t already.
1: They let people read who might not otherwise be able to.
Do I need to explain this one? Fine: my mother-in-law can’t read in low light. Or moderate light. Or most kinds of light to be honest. Audiobooks let her continue to enjoy books.
They do the same for people who are blind, who have low vision or any other kind of visual impairment, for people who are dyslexic, for all kinds of people with all kinds of reasons for not just picking up a book and reading. Honestly, this would be enough of a reason all by itself, but it isn’t all by itself because there’s: 2: They let people read while their hands are full. Chopping vegetables? Audiobook. Folding laundry? Audiobook.
Jogging? Audiobook. Trapped behind a stone wall in the catacomb-cum-wine-cellar of one whom you had mistakenly thought to be your friend? For the love of God, Montresor, at least let the poor man have an audiobook to listen to while he fruitlessly scrabbles to be free. There is almost no task that cannot be improved by listening to an audiobook. Unless it's recording or reviewing audiobooks. Then it might make things a little tricky.
In a similar vein:
3: They’re a great way to pass long journeys.
I’d say that any kind of book is a great way to pass a long journey, but that’s not a whole lot of help when you’re the driver.
Or if reading makes you carsick.
If you’ve got a long way to go, an audiobook of more or less suitable length — for the journey there or there and back again — can make the journey a lot more enjoyable. So long as you don’t forget and play that one book with the sudden, unexpected sex scene, when the kids are in the back and your phone with the book on is refusing to respond to instructions, and the back of the car has suddenly gone very quiet.
Or if you’re on public transport.
Though in that case you can always use headphones.
4: You can listen to them in the dark. I see no reason to give up my bedtime story just because I am a grown adult whose youngest child is already “too old” to be read to.
It’s not as though “too old” ever stopped us, anyway.
5: They let you experience the story in a different way. A good audiobook narrator can bring a book to life in ways you never imagined. For some reason I feel the sudden need to mention that Lillian Rachel is a very good audiobook narrator. I wonder if she has anything new coming out soon? 6: They let you hear things the right way. I’m not claiming that there’s only one true voice for any character, or that a sentence simply must be inflected in one particular tone to be the true expression of the author’s intent. That would be silly. Besides, everyone know’s that The Author is dead. Or maybe just wishes she was so she could get away from all the editing she has left to do. Ahem. Sorry. What I would like to point out is that when three or more voracious readers are gathered together, sooner or later the conversation is bound to turn to “Words that I didn’t know were pronounced like that.” It’s entirely reasonable: if you get the greater part of your vocabulary from reading books, and if you are reading those books in, let us call it the traditional manner, sooner or later the best intuition is going to get the wrong end of the elocutory stick. With audiobooks, as long as the narrator has done their research, and the author has given them a hand with their more heinous inventions, you get to hear the words as they are supposed to sound. And you don’t have to embarrass yourself by finding out that it isn’t actually “Iras-kibble” in front of the nice man with the first edition Target Doctor Who books for sale.
7: They let you hear the things you missed. There are jokes that don’t stand out until you hear them out loud. There are puns that don’t look like puns, when they’re just written on the page, and casual asides that don’t look like anything much unless you actually hear them spoken. As well as this, if you’re a fast reader, or a distracted one, it can be easy to miss something — literally blink and you miss it — slowing down to a natural speaking pace can give everything a chance to sink in, with every drop of nuance you might otherwise have missed.
8: No coffee stains on the pages.
No cats on the pages either.
No dog ears, fraying covers, or frantic hunts for a bookmark because you’ve just got to the good bit but apparently somebody needs help with their homework right now. No losing that important letter you were looking for because some nitwit (three guesses) left it in between the pages of a book. 9: They let you share your book with everyone. Ok, maybe you shouldn’t do this on the bus home (headphones are easily available in a range of styles and colours), but if you’ve got a book that you and your spouse, your flatmate, your child, your cat, or your potted Monstera Deliciosa both want to read, you essentially have three options. You can buy multiple copies. You can buy one copy between you and either pass it from hand to hand like a hot potato or let one person read it while the other one frets and keeps asking if they’re finished. And then, inevitably the first person gets to fret while the second person reads because they can’t talk about it yet. Or you can buy an audiobook. And listen to it together. And always know what it’s ok to talk about because you’re at the exact same place at the exact same time. Which is nice. 10: And most importantly: because The Vicar Man is coming out in audiobook. I should probably have said that first, shouldn’t I? You can find it on Audible soon, narrated by the genuinely lovely Lillian Rachel, who has been a joy to work with and an even greater joy to listen to. I hope you like it.
Incidentally the banana-poll is, I'm sorry to say, frighteningly real, and I really did stop in the middle of writing this blog post to create it. And then I went back to the top and changed the title. That was last night, and at this point the results stand at thirty-six percent of people believing that bananas are valid, nine percent opining that they or not, eighteen percent wondering if I'm entirely alright (no, never), and another thirty-six just asking "Seriously, what?" I'm with that last group. And if the odds don't quite add up, that's because I left out everything after the decimal point. It's a poll about bananas, not the architectural plans for a quarter-scale reproduction of the Sistine Chapel complete with painted ceiling.
*Yes, I had to look that up: the only Kraftwerk song I can name from memory is Das Hokey Cokey, which they performed in collaboration with Bill Bailey on one of his stand-up shows.
It was very good. **No, this isn’t a proper sentence, but Twitter has a character limit, so I think the Twitterers can be excused. ***Ten. I’m listing ten reasons. And maybe an afterthought. There are probably a lot more than ten if I really think about it, but if I started thinking I’d never stop, and then where would we be?**** ****Still here, probably, reading this unending list